Immigrants and Welfare Reauthorization

PDF of this Report (19pp.)

By Shawn Fremstad[1]

Revised February 4, 2002

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Until passage of the 1996 welfare law, legal immigrants were generally eligible for public benefits on the same basis as citizens. The welfare law conditioned eligibility on citizenship status rather than legal status, extending to most legal immigrants the eligibility restrictions that had traditionally applied only to undocumented immigrants. These unprecedented restrictions effectively redrew the boundaries of social membership in the United States.

The immigrant restrictions have proven to be among the most controversial aspects of the welfare law. In 1997, Congress restored Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to most immigrants who were already in the United States when the welfare law was enacted, and in 1998, it restored food stamp eligibility for immigrant children and for elderly and disabled persons who were here before August 1996. Legislation that would further restore benefits has been introduced in each subsequent session of Congress, although it has typically been limited to a specific program (food stamps), a specific population (domestic violence victims), or some combination of these two (Medicaid for pregnant women and children).

Support for restoring benefits crosses ideological and partisan lines. A report issued by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform subsequent to the welfare law’s enactment recommended against denying benefits to legal immigrants solely because they are non-citizens [2] . Most of the legislation mentioned above was introduced or enacted on a bipartisan basis. President Bush’s 2003 budget includes a proposal to restore food stamps to legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years. Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and a strong supporter of the 1996 law in general, has called for a restoration of benefits for all legal immigrants [3] . Even Newt Gingrich recently stated that the restrictions on legal immigrants’ eligibility for food stamps were "one of the provisions [in the welfare law] that went too far." [4]

Welfare reauthorization provides an opportunity to reconsider the restrictions and other immigrant provisions in the welfare law in a more comprehensive manner than has been undertaken to date. In addition, a somewhat neglected topic merits inclusion on the reauthorization agenda: the effect, on legal immigrant families who remain eligible for benefits, of the shift from Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Reconsideration of the welfare law’s immigrant provisions is especially timely given the growing demographic importance of the immigrant population in the United States. The welfare law changes came at the same time as the immigrant population reached near-record levels while becoming more dispersed throughout the country [5] . A significant number of low-income children in the United States — more than one in five — now live in noncitizen families[6]. Children of immigrants face greater hardship levels than native-born children who do not have immigrant parents. Although immigrant unemployment rates fell at a greater rate than native unemployment rates during the 1990s, overall levels of hardship for immigrants remain high. Nationwide, 37 percent of all children of immigrants live in families that have worried about or encountered difficulties affording food, compared with 27 percent of natives. Children of immigrants are more than twice as likely to live in families that pay more than 50 percent of their income in rent or mortgage costs, and are four times as likely to live in crowded housing [7]. Thus continued progress in improving the well-being of low-income children in the United States will depend in no small measure on reducing poverty and improving other outcomes for children in immigrant families.

Immigrant Eligibility for Benefits

The eligibility of legal immigrants for public benefits now varies among federal programs and depends on a variety of factors, including date of entry to the United States, type of immigration status, work history, age, and state of residence. Legal immigrants who entered before August 22, 1996 are generally eligible for benefits, except for food stamps. (The food stamp program retains the most restrictive immigrant eligibility criteria of any of the major federal means-tested programs, although provisions that may be adopted as part of the new Farm Bill would bring it more in line with other programs.) [8]

For those legal immigrants who entered on or after August 22, 1996, eligibility depends largely on immigration status upon admission to the United States. The largest immigrant group, immigrants admitted as lawful permanent residents (in most cases for family reunification purposes), is generally ineligible for benefits (as are a few additional categories of legal immigrants, such as certain immigrant victims of domestic violence) [9]. Immigrants admitted for humanitarian purposes (refugees, people granted asylum, and a few other related categories) remain eligible, but for a limited time only[10] . While eligible for benefits, humanitarian immigrants represent only about 11 percent of the noncitizen population.

  • Lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who entered the United States on or after August 22, 1996 are ineligible for food stamps and SSI until they become U.S. citizens or can be credited with 40 quarters of work. They are also barred from federal TANF and Medicaid until they have lived in the United States for five years after entering the country or, at state option, until they become U.S. citizens or can be credited with 40 quarters of work [11] . The restriction on immigrant eligibility in the TANF program applies not only to cash assistance but also to any means-tested benefit or service (with a few limited exceptions) provided with TANF funds, including job training and work supports.
  • LPRs who entered before August 22, 1996 remain eligible for SSI (except for non-disabled elderly immigrants who were not receiving SSI on August 22, 1996) and, at state option, for TANF and Medicaid.
  • Adult LPRs who entered before August 22, 1996 are ineligible for food stamps unless they are disabled, were aged 65 or older on August 22, 1996, or can be credited with 40 quarters of work.
  • Refugees and asylees remain eligible during their first five (TANF) or seven years (food stamps, Medicaid, SSI) in the United States. After this initial period of eligibility, states have the option to either continue eligibility or to limit TANF and Medicaid eligibility to those immigrants who have obtained citizenship or can be credited with 40 quarters of work.

Before passage of the welfare law, immigrants with sponsors were subject to "sponsor deeming" in AFDC, the Food Stamp Program, and SSI during their first three years in the United States. Under this requirement, the income and resources of an immigrant’s sponsor were counted or "deemed" in determining the immigrant’s eligibility for and amount of benefits. The 1996 welfare law continued and extended this requirement for sponsored immigrants entering the United States after December 1997. For these sponsored immigrants, deeming is now required until they obtain citizenship or have worked for 40 quarters. Moreover, for the first time, the new rules extend deeming to Medicaid. The law also provides that if a sponsored immigrant receives benefits in spite of the eligibility restrictions and sponsor deeming requirements, the agency that provided the benefits may sue the sponsor for reimbursement of the benefits.

The law gave states new authority to determine the eligibility of immigrants for both federal and state benefits. As noted above, states may opt not to provide federally funded TANF and Medicaid benefits to most legal immigrants regardless of when they entered the United States. The law includes language authorizing state-imposed restrictions on immigrants’ eligibility for state-funded benefit programs.

At the same time, the law limits state authority in other areas. States and local governments may not provide public benefits, including nonemergency health care benefits, to immigrants who are not lawfully residing in the United States, unless they enact a state law after August 22, 1996 which "affirmatively provides for such eligibility." Nor may state and local governments restrict their employees from reporting any immigrants to the INS. This provision means that immigrant families cannot be sure that information they provide when applying for benefits for eligible family members, including citizen children, will be kept confidential.

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End notes:

[1] A version of this paper will appear in a forthcoming edition of Focus, the newsletter of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jan Blakeslee, the editor of Focus, provided helpful editorial suggestions.

[2] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, Become an American: Immigration and Immigrant Policy (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, September 1997).

[3] Bruce Reed, Staying Off Welfare for Good, N.Y. Times, January 4, 2002.

[4] Robert Pear, White House Seeking to Restore Food Stamp Aid for Noncitizens, N.Y. Times, January 9, 2002.

[5]According to researchers at the Urban Institute, the immigrant population in a group of 37 states that they refer to as "new immigrant states" grew twice as quickly as the immigrant population in the six states with the largest immigrant populations. Michael Fix, Wendy Zimmerman, and Jeffrey S. Passel, Integration of Immigrant Families in the United States, Urban Institute, July 2001.

[6]Some 22 percent of low-income children (that is, in families with incomes under 150 percent of poverty) lived in families headed by a non-citizen in 2000. CBPP calculations based on the March 2001 Current Population Survey.

[7] Randy Capps, Hardship among Children of Immigrants: Findings from the 1999 National Survey of America’s Families, Urban Institute, February 2001.

[8] The version of the Farm Bill passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee includes provisions that would allow legal immigrants who can claim 16 quarters of work history to qualify for benefits, restore eligibility to all legal immigrant children, lift the seven-year limit on eligibility for refugees and asylees, and restore eligibility to disabled legal immigrants who entered the United States after August 22, 1996. Dottie Rosenbaum, Side-by-Side Comparisons of Food Stamp Provisions in Proposed Farm Bills, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, December 2001. In addition, the Bush Administration has proposed restoring food stamp benefits to legal immigrants who have resided in the United States for five years.

[9] A discussion of basic immigration concepts and immigrant categories is included as an appendix to this paper.

[10] In addition, immigrants who are U.S. veterans and active-duty service members and their spouses and children remain eligible for benefits.

[11] States may use TANF maintenance-of-effort (MOE) funds to provide benefits and services to legal immigrants.

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