The Application Process For TANF, Food Stamps, Medicaid, and SCHIP. The Demographic Context: Immigration and Language Diversity


By 2000 the foreign-born share of the U.S. population had more than doubled to almost 11 percent, from a low of 5 percent three decades earlier in 1970 (Fix and Passel 2001). And growth in immigrant and LEP populations has been accompanied by an increasing dispersal of immigrants across the country. This trend marks a significant shift away from the traditional clustering of the overwhelming majority of foreign-born residents in just a handful of states that characterized immigration patterns in the past.

Nationally, about one fifth of all children and one quarter of children in low-income families (i.e., those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level) have immigrant parents (The Urban Institute 2001). Data from the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey indicate that, nationally, the number of Limited English Proficient (LEP) adults increased from 12 to 16.5 million between 1990 and 2000. During that time, the LEP share of the total adult population rose from 6 to 8 percent.

The composition of these immigrant families, especially in terms of their mixed immigration status and relatively large family and household size, is of particular relevance to this study. Almost 10 percent of all families in the U.S. are "mixed-status" families, meaning that at least one child is a U.S. citizen but at least one parent is not a citizen. According to 1998 figures from the U.S. Current Population Survey (CPS), 85 percent of families with at least one non-citizen parent have at least one citizen child. The vast majority of immigrant families who apply for benefits have both citizens and non-citizens in them and while non-citizen adults are often ineligible for benefits, their children — who are usually citizens — are generally eligible (Fix and Zimmermann 1999). In addition, immigrant parents have more children on average than native-born parents and they are more likely to live in extended families and multi-family households, making for even larger households.

Citizenship and Immigration Categories Used in This Report

  • Native-Born Citizens. People born in the United States or born abroad as children of U.S. citizens. Many children with immigrant parents are U.S.-born and therefore native citizens. They are eligible for public benefits on the same terms as other citizens.
  • Naturalized Citizens. Lawful permanent residents may become citizens through the naturalization process. Typically, they must be in the United States for five or more years to qualify for naturalization, although immigrants who marry citizens can qualify in three years. Naturalized citizens are also eligible for public benefits on the same terms as other citizens.
  • Non-Citizens. These include all immigrants — legal and undocumented — who have not yet naturalized and are categorized as described below:
  • Legal (or Lawful) Permanent Residents (LPRs). These are foreign-born people who are legally admitted to live permanently in the United States through qualifying for immigrant visas abroad or adjustment to permanent resident status in the United States. LPRs are issued documentation that is commonly referred to as "green cards," although the cards have not been green for many years. Most LPRs are brought to the United States by close family members or employers, but some entered as refugees and others were undocumented and later legalized. At the time of our study, LPR adults were required to show they had lived and worked in the United States at least 10 years to receive food stamps.
  • Post-Enactment Legal Immigrants. These are LPRs who were admitted to permanent residency after August 22, 1996, when the welfare reform law passed. They are generally subject to a five-year bar on eligibility for TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP, except where states are providing benefits through their own funding mechanisms.
  • Refugees and Asylees. These are foreign-born people legally admitted to the United States because of the fear of persecution in their home countries. In general, refugees are promised admission before entry to the United States and may gain entry as a group, and they are usually resettled under refugee programs that provide substantial economic support and application assistance for public benefits. Asylees arrive in the United States before they claim asylum, and so their cases typically require more individual review. Many asylees have been in the country some time before their asylum application is accepted, and so they usually do not have the assistance of refugee resettlement agencies. After one year, most refugees and asylees are eligible for LPR status. Unlike LPRs, refugees and asylees are eligible for TANF, Medicaid and SCHIP for five years after admission (seven years in the case of food stamps), even if they have attained legal permanent residence.
  • Undocumented Immigrants. Also called illegal aliens, these are foreign-born people who do not possess a valid visa or other immigration document, because they entered the United States without inspection, stayed longer than their temporary visas permitted, or otherwise violated the terms under which they were admitted. Some may petition to adjust their status and eventually attain LPR status. While undocumented, however, they are ineligible for the federally-funded public benefits considered in this study, except for emergency Medicaid.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 328.14Kb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®