There are many things which may prevent a person applying for U.S. permanent residence (a "green card") from obtaining it. Some, like certain prior criminal or terrorist activities, are obvious and widely known. Others, such as the "Public Charge" ground for inadmissibility, are less well-known. The Public Charge ground provides that a person cannot be granted permanent residence unless they can demonstrate that, with a few exceptions, they won't require financial support from any level of government in the U.S.
How do we prove that someone isn't subject to the "Public Charge" Ground for inadmissibility?
While the salary involved in an employment-sponsored case normally is enough to deal with this issue, for family based cases the relative sponsoring the petition will need to complete a form I-864 Affidavit of Support. By signing this form, the relative is promising to provide financial support for the sponsored foreign national (referred to in the form as the "intending immigrant") at 125% of the Federal Poverty Line. In order to be able to complete an Affidavit of Support, the petitioning relative will normally -- absent very substantial savings or other assets --need to be able to show income of at least 125% of federal poverty line for themselves, anyone else in their household (adding in anyone previously sponsored on form I-864) and the sponsored foreign national. At this writing in 2009, this 125%-of-poverty-line income figure is $19,300 for a household size of two according to the 2009 poverty guidelines.
What happens when the sponsoring relative just doesn't have enough income and/or assets to meet the Federal 125% of poverty line requirement?
The usual answer, of course, is to request the help of a "Joint Sponsor." A Joint Sponsor must be a citizen or permanent resident, and must be domiciled in the U.S. (must have their primary home here), but need not be a relative of the Primary Sponsor or of the sponsored foreign national. In limited circumstances, the income of the sponsored individual can be joined through a "Contract with Household Member" - but the individual sponsored must be legally earning that income in the US. A more detailed discussion is a subject for another Guide...
What obligations does the Joint Sponsor take on by signing the I-864 form?
By completing the I-864 form, the Joint Sponsor is signing a contract with the U.S. government agreeing to provide the sponsored foreign national with sufficient support to maintain him/herself at 125% of the federal poverty line guidelines. The Joint Sponsor would be agreeing to provide the difference between whatever the sponsored foreign national makes on his or her own and this amount. Legally, this would only have an impact on the Joint Sponsor if the sponsored foreign national does not make at least this amount him or herself and either sues you for that amount OR applies for a means-tested public benefit (including but not limited to welfare, public housing, non-emergency Medicaid) in which case the Joint Sponsor's income would be considered available to the sponsored foreign national her for purposes of determining if he or she qualified.
What obligations does the Joint Sponsor take on by signing the I-864 form? (CONTINUED)
If the sponsored foreign national were to receive public assistance from a government agency, you may be asked or even sued for reimbursement. There are some government benefits which aren't included in this: emergency Medicaid, short-term, non-cash emergency relief; services under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts; immunizations and testing and treatment for communicable diseases; and means-tested programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Does this obligation ever end?
The obligations which a Joint Sponsor takes on under the Affidavit of Support would last until one of these things happen: (A.) The sponsored foreign national can be credited with 40 qualifying quarters of work (a quarter being equal to three months at four quarters per year) - basically, the equivalent of ten full years of work without interruption for layoff, leave, disability, etc.. (B.) The sponsored foreign national becomes a U.S. citizen; (C.) The sponsored foreign national departs the U.S. and no longer has permanent residence; (D.) The sponsored foreign national dies; (E.) You die (your estate is responsible for obligations accruing before, but not after, your death); or (F.) The sponsored foreign national becomes somehow subject to removal (deportation), and obtains permanent residence anew in removal proceedings based on someone else's Affidavit of Support.
If I become a Joint Sponsor for a marriage-based case and the couple divorces, am I off the hook or am I still obligated?
Separation or divorce of a sponsored foreign national from a Primary Sponsor does not remove the obligation from either the Primary OR the Joint Sponsor. Some courts have allowed divorcing spouses to use the Affidavit of Support to claim support directly from the US Citizen or Permanent Resident spouse - you can view a good article on this here: http://www.floridabar.org/divcom/jn/jnjournal01.nsf/c0d731e03de9828d852574580042ae7a/2cbe6a52e76636f28525763b00661a63!OpenDocument&Highlight=0,*. Support is still limited to 125% of the poverty line, and the courts have reduced the household size by the size of the household post-divorce. Such decisions may extend to Joint Sponsors.
Any other obligations besides all the financial stuff?
The Joint Sponsor has one additional obligation: to inform USCIS of futures change of address within 30 days by filing an I-865 form until the sponsored foreign national is no longer covered by the Affidavit.
All of this likely sounds difficult and quite burdensome; the obligations of the Joint Sponsor shouldn't be minimized. However, there would be no real impact for as long as the sponsored foreign national remains self-supporting (or at least continues to be supported by the Primary Sponsor, normally someone in their household) and does not apply for public assistance.