Understanding the “Totality of Circumstances” in USCIS Discretion

Courts around the country will dismiss immigrant public charge cases that have been appealed by rejected applicants on this basis. However, the I-864 Affidavit of Support is still mandatory when applying for a U.S. visa or green card. Therefore it is important to understand the totality of circumstances that USCIS officers use to preside over cases.

If you are having questions for whether or not the public charge rule is still in effect, this guide will seek to better serve you in understanding where the U.S. government currently stands on the issue, and also how this has affected change within the Department of Homeland Security— and more importantly if the new headlines have any effect on your USCIS immigration application.  

With the election of Joe Biden has also come the appointment of a new Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas. Mayorkas has in recent weeks come down hard on the public charge rule, and has effectively with the help of the President brought the issue to the Justice Department, which has been instructed to no longer defend the Trump administration's public charge regulation. What this means is that courts all across the U.S. will now not enforce cases that have been appealed on the basis of the public charge rule. Meaning they will not support Trump-era policies that deny immigrants green cards based on public benefits they have received in the past. The DHS commented that defending public charge in court was, "neither in the public interest nor an efficient use of limited government resources."

Where the USCIS Stands

However, despite all of the politics, the USCIS form I-864 Affidavit of Support, is still an easily downloadable PDF on the USCIS website, and is still a major part of family based immigration to the United States. In other words, you can still be inadmissible to the United States on other grounds, such as having a sponsor that does not meet a federal poverty income threshold based on their household size.

This means that the I-864 Affidavit of Support still needs to be filled out, and that despite the recent news it is still mandatory in family based immigration documents that are submitted to the USCIS.

What does the “Totality of Circumstances” Mean?

As such, a review of the “totality of circumstances” legal framework is worth a review. A totality of circumstances mean that the USCIS officer who is presiding over a case can still use an objective analysis in deciding whether to accept or reject the immigration application based on the following criteria:

  • Whether the principal sponsor meets the federal poverty line for annual income based on their household size
  • Whether the sponsor and beneficiary are admissible based on having no criminal record
  • Whether there is a joint sponsor recognized in the case of an insufficient income by the principal sponsor
  • Whether the beneficiary is in good health, not elderly, and has an education/career plan
  • Whether the principal or joint sponsor is otherwise inadmissible.

These are the issues that the adjudicating officer conducts their analysis on regardless of the courts. This means that the I-864 is still very much a real document for immigration applicants, and that while having used SNAP or other government assistance programs in the past can now be dismissed in court, immigration applicants still need to be otherwise admissible based on the other requirements of the I-864.


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