Even though most eligibility workers we spoke to have become familiar with general procedures for determining non-citizen eligibility, they still noted that the complexity of PRWORA's eligibility rules sometimes makes carrying out eligibility determination challenging, especially in cases when non-citizen applicants present unusual documents or when eligibility rules have undergone recent changes. The legislation includes differing eligibility rules for different programs, along with exemptions for certain classes of immigrants. A five-year period of ineligibility applies to all legal immigrants entering after August 1996 for TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP, as well as to children for food stamps. Legal immigrant adults must show they worked at least 10 years, or 40 quarters, to receive food stamps, regardless of their date of entry.3 PRWORA also includes exemptions from these eligibility rules for refugees, asylees and similar classes of legal immigrants, as well as for active duty military, veterans and spouses of active duty military and veterans.4
In jurisdictions such as Seattle and Sedalia that offer state substitute programs for those ineligible from federally-funded benefits, the correct application of the exemptions is primarily an accounting issue (i.e., it affects whether the state or federal government pays for benefits). However, in locations where there are limited substitute programs or no such programs at all (e.g., Arlington, Raleigh, Dallas), the consequence of failing to apply exemptions correctly has important ramifications for non-citizens, since their ability to access benefits depends upon the correct application of the bars.
Exemptions for Refugees, Asylees and Similar Classes of Legal Immigrants. The most commonly applied exemption to the bar on non-citizen eligibility for public benefits is for refugees and similar groups of legal immigrants. For immigration status documentation purposes, the I-94 form provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) generally identifies recently resettled refugees. Eligibility workers in all six sites appeared to be very familiar with this form of identification. In addition, many staff noted that refugees are more likely than other non-citizen applicants to come prepared with immigration and other required documents because they typically receive application assistance from resettlement agencies or other support networks. Correctly identifying and applying the refugee exemption based on I-94 forms appears to be a relatively standardized and streamlined process, at least in the six study sites.
There is greater risk for error, however, in cases where refugees subsequently become Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs): if eligibility workers fail to recognize applicants' former status as refugees, then they might not apply the refugee exemption.5 This mistake might occur more frequently in offices that do not routinely use the SAVE system, since SAVE should identify such applicants as refugees.
Asylees and similar immigration cases6 also qualify for the same exemption to the legal immigrant eligibility bars as refugees. Yet it appears there is a greater potential for confusion or error in applying the exemptions to these groups of immigrants because welfare office staff encounter these types of immigrants far less frequently and therefore are less familiar with what constitutes acceptable immigration status documentation for these types of cases.
Furthermore, whereas these difficulties might be offset through application assistance efforts, asylees have not had access to the types of application assistance provided by refugee-serving organizations, because they have usually been living in the United States for some time before their asylum application is accepted. Recent rule changes now make asylees eligible for benefits for their first five years from the date their asylum application is granted, rather than from the date they first arrived in the United States.7 However, only a handful of workers noted this policy change, and some advocates mentioned cases where failure to correctly implement this rule change had resulted in cases where asylees were improperly denied access to benefits. The LPR and asylee examples noted here highlight the greater difficulty of making eligibility determinations in less common types of immigration cases — especially those requiring unusual types of documentation — and the ongoing challenge of tracking changes in non-citizen eligibility rules and informing workers about them.
The Food Stamp Work Requirement for Non-Citizens.8 Discussions with eligibility workers suggest that they are called upon to apply the 10 years (40 quarters) of work exemption less frequently than the refugee exemption, in part because the quarters verification applies only to food stamps eligibility determination, and in part because most non-citizen applicants' formally recognized work history is not that extensive. As required by federal regulations, all six sites have established links with the Social Security Administration (SSA) earnings database.
Workers know how to use these links to verify work quarters even though there is typically no need to do so. The link to SSA allows eligibility workers to send a request for verification and, according to workers, they generally receive a response within a day or two. In most cases, requests for work quarters do not appear to slow down the application process appreciably or affect timeliness of eligibility decisions. All the sites also have procedures for verifying the quarters of a spouse (while married to the applicant) and parents (while the applicant was under age 18). These procedures, however, are often difficult to implement because applicants must provide signatures from these parties before SSA will release their earnings records to the eligibility worker.
While procedures are in place to use the SSA database, the database does not capture earnings for which employers have not paid into social security. This is significant because "informal work" — for which earnings may go unreported — is common among low-income immigrants, especially by those who legalized but also worked when they were undocumented. In Arlington, New York City, Sedalia, and Seattle, workers are allowed to accept pay stubs, W-2s and employer statements in addition to SSA verification. In Dallas and Raleigh, however, workers do not accept other forms of verification. Even in sites that allow these alternative forms of documentation, workers said they rarely encounter applicants who saved the paperwork from enough quarters to qualify. Some eligibility workers also indicated that they do not routinely ask about the work history of spouses or parents.
Other Exemptions to Non-Citizen Eligibility Bars. The other exemptions — for military service, veterans and their dependents — are rarely identified or activated. In the case of military service, eligibility workers generally have sufficient information to make this exemption decision because integrated applications routinely ask about military experience to verify veterans' benefits and military employment. However, there was virtually unanimous agreement among workers in all sites that it is very rare for an applicant to meet these exemption criteria.
Deeming of Sponsors' Income. One of the more nuanced but potentially important PRWORA immigrant eligibility rules concerns sponsor deeming — the policy of attributing the income and resources of a sponsor to a non-citizen when she or he applies for public benefits. Federal welfare and immigration reform broadened the potential for sponsor deeming by expanding the categories of non-citizens who are required to have sponsors in order to enter the country, the number of programs subject to sponsor deeming, and the length of time deeming lasts.9
At the time of our visits, it appears that eligibility workers virtually never deem sponsor income for non-citizen eligibility because deeming only applies to a very small group of legal immigrants. Many sponsored immigrants entering the United States after 1996 who might be subject to sponsor deeming rules are ineligible for federal benefits anyway due to the restrictions in welfare reform. Based on discussions with workers, it appears that they attempt to determine whether sponsor deeming applies in only two of the six sites we visited (Seattle and Arlington for TANF/FSP/Medicaid applications), and even there they virtually never have occasion to apply deeming rules.