A version of this article first appeared in the Side Bar journal for the Litigation…
In Erler v. Erler a District Court provided the most detailed discussion to date of the calculation of household size for determining the level of support obligations under the I-864. CV-12-02793-CRB, 2013 WL 6139721, at (N.D. Cal. Nov. 21, 2013). The court began by recognizing that there is no single definition of “household size” for purpose of the Federal Poverty Guidelines that applies across all federal law contexts. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services defer to programs that rely on the guidelines for administering various benefits. Indeed, the I-864 regulations do provide a definition of household size, but the definition is made “for the express purpose of determining whether the intending sponsor’s income is sufficient to suppose the intending immigrant.”
Under the I-864 regulations “household size” necessarily includes the following:
- The sponsor;
- The sponsor’s spouse;
- The sponsor’s unmarried children under age 21 (not including stepchildren);
- Any person claimed as a dependent on the sponsor’s Federal income tax return for the most recent year;
- The number of non-citizens the sponsor has sponsored under an I-864, where the obligation has not terminated; and
- All non-citizens sponsored under the current I-864.
Household size may also include the sponsor’s parent, adult child, brother or sister, if that person’s income is used for the current I-864.
The plaintiff-beneficiary in Erler lived with her adult son, whose income – if imputed to her – would place her above 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Hence, the beneficiary was incentivized to argue that she was a household of one, in order to present herself as having no income. The court rejected the argument that it was bound by the determination that the beneficiary was a household of one for purposes of the food stamps program, since among other flaws the Guidelines make clear that household definition is context specific. Likewise, the court rejected the argument that it should look only to the sponsor-defendant for financial support, in lieu of the beneficiary’s son, as only the defendant had a contractual support obligation. The court rejected this proposition without legal citation, “because it leads to an untenable result” that the beneficiary would be entitled to I-864 support even if she “becomes part of a millionaire’s family.”
Instead, the court determined that it must “strike a balance between ensuring that the immigrant’s income is sufficient to prevent her from becoming a public charge while preventing unjust enrichment to the immigrant.” Where an immigrant “lives alone, or only temporarily with others, she should receive payments based on a one-person household.” But the court believed the plaintiff-beneficiary would be “unjustly enriched” if she received income support from her I-864 sponsor, since her adult child was in fact providing support.
Note the Hobson’s choice with which an immigrant is left by this holding. An I-864 beneficiary may elect to attempt to live on her own with no financial support – in which case she may seek recovery from her I-864 sponsor – or else she may impose herself on a family member, thereby waiving I-864 support. Imputing income from the family member may seem unproblematic for the “millionaire” families envisioned by the Erler court, but that hypothetical is likely distant from the reality of many immigrant families. Indeed, the beneficiary’s son in Erler earned only two and one-half times the Federal Poverty Guidelines for a household of two.