If you are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder), and you petition for a member of your family to receive a green card, you will have to agree to sponsor that person financially as well. It's a serious, but not unlimited responsibility. What it means is explained in this article.
In order for would-be immigrant family members to succeed in obtaining a green card, they will need to prove (among other things) that they are not "inadmissible."
One of the grounds of inadmissibility found in the U.S. immigration laws is that the person is likely to become a "public charge." (See Immigration and Nationality Act, or I.N.A. § 212, 8 U.S.C. § 1182.) A public charge is someone who receives U.S. government assistance based on financial need.
As the petitioner and financial sponsor, you will not only need to show that your income and assets are high enough to avoid the immigrant becoming a public charge, but you'll have to promise to pay the government back if the immigrant ends up claiming certain types of public assistance benefits.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of the U.S. government's analysis. It can, and sometimes does, decide that despite the U.S. sponsor having met all the support requirements, the immigrant is still likely to become a public charge, perhaps because of health problems and no obvious source of employment or health insurance.
You'll see how serious the U.S. government is about wanting a petitioner's promise of financial support when you fill out the required USCIS Form I-864. See Preparing I-864 Affidavit of Support Forms for more on what you'll need to complete.
The form will ask you for information about your household size, as well as your income and assets, and require you to attach proof, in the form of tax returns and other documentary evidence of your employment and of any assets being claimed.
By signing Form I-864, you are entering into an enforceable contract with the United States government. Your obligations under this contract do not end until the immigrant has either:
Note that divorce does not end a sponsor's obligations under the Affidavit of Support.
In some instances, the U.S. petitioner will not be looked to for financial support. These include where:
In any of these cases, the petitioner will need to file a form called I-864W in order to claim the exception.
As the U.S. sponsor, your assets and income must be at least 125% of the federal Poverty Guidelines in order to show that you can maintain the applying immigrant as well as any other members of your household. For the latest table showing the required income amounts for different household sizes, see USCIS Form I-864P.
If your income alone isn't high enough, you (the petitioner) as well as the immigrant may count your assets, if they are readily convertible to cash, at a percentage of their full value (usually one fifth).
If someone else is willing to take responsibility for the immigrant, such as a friend or family member, that person can become a "joint sponsor," by filing an additional Affidavit of Support on the immigrants' behalf. That person would need to fill out a complete separate Form I-864. You can have up to two joint sponsors per family, but no more than one per immigrant.
Alternately, a member of your own household can agree to add earnings to the total support amount. That person would need to fill out a USCIS Form I-864A. In fact, the immigrant him- or herself can add income to the mix if already living with you in the United States and working legally in a job that will continue after getting the green card.
You can be sued by the sponsored immigrant if you do not give sufficient financial support. Such lawsuits are rare, however.
You might also be asked for repayment and ultimately sued by a U.S. government agency from which the immigrant received a mean-tested public benefit such as food stamps, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, or State Child Health Insurance benefits. Consult an attorney if this happens.