There are two ways that you can sponsor an immigrant who is coming to the United States. Generally speaking, anyone can financially sponsor an immigrant, whether the immigrant is a friend, family member, employee, or acquaintance. Separately, a family member may petition for a visa or Green Card on behalf of an immigrant. Both are considered forms of sponsoring an immigrant, though only one of them involves taking on a financial liability.

Financially Sponsoring an Immigrant

You can financially sponsor an immigrant by signing Form I-864, Affidavit of Support. This document is a legally enforceable contract and signifies that the sponsor accepts financial responsibility for the immigrant. Specifically, the sponsor guarantees immigration officials that the immigrant will not require means-tested government assistance programs in the United States.

If the immigrant in question receives benefits from certain means-tested assistance programs (Food Stamps, Medicaid, SCHIP, SSI, or TANF), the financial sponsor must repay the US Government for the benefits received. This responsibility lasts until the immigrant becomes a US citizen, works in the US for 40 quarters (10 years), or returns to their home country.

The only requirement that USCIS imposes on financial sponsors is that the sponsor’s income must be at least 125% of the US poverty line based on the household size (see Form I-864P for guidelines). In this case, the household includes the sponsor, his or her dependents, the immigrant, and any family members who are living in the sponsor’s home.

There is one notable exception this rule. Members of the US Armed Forces who are on active duty are only required to demonstrate household income that is equal to the US poverty line (i.e. 100% of the poverty line). However, this exception only applies if the immigrant is the sponsor’s immediate family member, such as a spouse or child.

Liabilities of Financially Sponsoring an Immigrant

While it may seem like a trivial matter to some people, the decision to financially sponsor an immigrant should never be taken lightly. Form I-864 creates a legally binding contract that may last up to 10 years or longer, and the current administration has been significantly more aggressive when holding sponsors accountable for immigrants who wrongfully use means-tested assistance programs.

Before you agree to financially sponsor an immigrant, consider the following potential liabilities:

  • Sponsoring an immigrant spouse may not end with a divorce – when you agree to financially sponsor a fiancé or spouse, keep in mind that if you eventually get divorced, your sponsorship liability doesn’t go away with the divorce decree. Even after the divorce, you will still be financially responsible for your former spouse.
  • The immigrant may sue you for financial support – while you aren’t liable for the immigrant’s personal debts and bills, you are generally responsible for ensuring they have financial means to meet the US poverty line. It’s extremely rare to see an immigrant take a sponsor to court over this, and it’s even more rare for the court to side with the immigrant in such cases, but there have been cases where the state sided with the immigrant in a financial support suit. 
  • The US Government may sue you to recover benefit program costs – if the immigrant receives benefits from certain means-tested assistance programs and you are unwilling to voluntarily repay the debt, you may find yourself in court. Civil suits are rare, but the option is always on the table.  
  • USCIS may fine you for failing to update your address when you move – to prevent sponsors from running from their financial responsibility to the immigrant, a sponsor is required to file a change of address every time they move. Failure to do so may result in fines of up to $10,000 (though they’re usually more in the range of $2,500 – $5,000)
  • You may have a limited ability to sponsor other immigrants in the future – if you choose to sponsor another immigrant in the future, you will need to count any immigrants that you are currently sponsoring when calculating your household size. This will increase the level of income that you will need to be eligible to sponsor a new immigrant.
  • Your liability may not be relieved by bankruptcy – if you are forced to file for bankruptcy due to financial insolvency, you cannot discharge your financial sponsorship obligation like you can with credit card bills and other debts. The liability for the immigrant will continue until the contract expires when they become a US citizen, work for 40 quarters, or leave the United States.

The good news is that financially sponsoring an immigrant does not include any liability for the immigrant’s personal debts, bills, or money problems. If the immigrant incurs substantial medical bills, accumulates debt collection accounts, or has to declare bankruptcy, none of these activities would have any effect on you or your personal credit. You’re welcome to financially assist the immigrant in personal finance matters if you choose to, but you do not have a legal obligation to do so.

Furthermore, there are still a number of government assistance programs that sponsored immigrants may qualify for, so he or she isn’t barred from receiving some benefits. Examples of approved government assistance programs include:

  • Certain forms of foster-care or adoption assistance under the Social Security Act
  • Emergency Medicaid
  • Head Start Programs
  • Immunizations, testing, and treatment for communicable diseases
  • Job Training Partnership Act programs
  • Means-tested programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act
  • Services provided under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts
  • Short-term, non-cash emergency relief
  • Student assistance under the Higher Education Act and the Public Health Service Act

If the immigrant in question receives benefits from any of these approved programs, doing so would have no impact on you or your contract with USCIS. 

Sponsoring a Family Members Petition for a Visa or Green Card

US citizens and Green Card holders are allowed to petition for certain visas and permanent residency on behalf of immediate family members. In some cases, such sponsorship isn’t just an option—it’s a requirement. To sponsor a family member’s petition, you’ll need to file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. This form allows USCIS to recognize your immediate family relationship and must be processed either before the immigrant’s separate application or concurrently with their application.

Liabilities of Sponsoring a Family Member’s Petition

On its own, petitioning for a visa or Green Card on behalf of an immediate family member does not involve any liability for the sponsor. However, the petitioning family member is typically required to file an Affidavit for Support along with Form I-130. If that is the case, then the petitioning family member would also be the financial sponsor and would incur the same liabilities that come with financially sponsoring an immigrant.

Call our Immigration team at(480) 626-2388 to discuss your case today.

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