How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Policy Background


The two laws that reshaped immigrant eligibility for federal public benefits were the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, the federal welfare reform law) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), both enacted in 1996. Since they were passed, incremental amendments to the legislation have restored benefits to limited groups of immigrants, particularly those who were already in the United States on or before August 22, 1996, when PRWORA was enacted.(4)

The current immigrant eligibility rules are very complex, and we summarize only the key elements here. For the sake of brevity, we use the term "post-enactment"to refer to immigrants who were legally admitted to the country on or after August 22, 1996, and "pre-enactment" to refer to those who arrived before that date.

  • Food Stamp Program. This program provides food coupons (or electronic debit cards for food purchases) to help low-income families buy food in grocery stores. Most legal immigrants cannot receive food stamps, except for pre-enactment children and certain elderly or disabled persons. Legal immigrant adults who are not elderly or disabled must prove they have worked at least 10 years in the United States. A number of immigrant families that were receiving food stamps prior to welfare reform lost these benefits or had them reduced.
  • Supplemental Security Income. This program provides cash assistance to low-income elderly or disabled people to help with basic living expenses. Post-enactment immigrants are ineligible. Pre-enactment immigrants can get benefits if they were already participating in SSI or if they were in the United States in August 1996 and subsequently became disabled.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This program is the state block grant that, under PRWORA, replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. States have great flexibility in how to use TANF funds to provide cash assistance and other benefits, such as child care and job training, to low-income families. It is the main federally-funded cash welfare program for these families. Post-enactment legal immigrants are ineligible for federally-funded TANF during their first five years in the country, and states have discretion to decide eligibility for pre-enactment legal immigrants. States may also provide welfare benefits to post-enactment legal immigrants, but only with their own funding. (In California, TANF is known as CalWorks.)
  • Medicaid. This program provides health insurance for low-income children, families, disabled persons, and the elderly. Similar to TANF, post-enactment immigrants are ineligible for full Medicaid during first five years in the country, and states have discretion to decide eligibility for pre-enactment immigrants. Any immigrant who meets Medicaid eligibility requirements may get Medicaid coverage for emergency services, regardless of his or her immigration status or date of entry. These rules also apply to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which was enacted in 1997. States also provide their own funding for public health insurance for immigrants not eligible for Medicaid or CHIP. (In California, Medicaid is called Medi-Cal and the main SCHIP program is called Healthy Families. New York State uses the program name "Medicaid", and the main SCHIP program is called Child Health Plus.)
  • Citizenship and other exemptions. Immigrants are eligible for all benefits if they become naturalized citizens. There are also exemptions for immigrants who have served in the U.S. military and their dependents.
  • Citizen children. Children who are native-born U.S. citizens are eligible for all of these programs, regardless of the citizenship and immigration status of their parents. Nationally, 78 percent of children of immigrants were U.S.-born citizens in 1999 (Capps 2001).
  • Grace period for refugees and asylees. Unlike other legal immigrants, people admitted as refugees or asylees are eligible for federal means-tested benefits during their first several years in the country, regardless of their date of entry. For Medicaid, Food Stamps, and SSI, the refugee grace period is seven years; for TANF, it is five years. Certain groups of immigrants, such as Cuban-Haitian entrants and Amerasians, are categorically considered refugees, so they are also granted the grace periods.
  • Undocumented aliens (illegal immigrants). Even before these laws were passed, undocumented aliens were not eligible for any of these programs, except for the receipt of Medicaid for emergency services. These rules remain in effect.
  • State supplemental funding option. States may provide benefits to immigrants who are ineligible for federal assistance, provided that they opt to use only state funds, without matching federal assistance (although some of this state funding can count toward a state's "maintenance of effort" as required under rules regarding spending of TANF block grants). Many states have provided state-funded supplemental programs, particularly SCHIP, Medicaid, and food stamps. California provides state-funded supplemental programs that extend eligibility to most legal immigrants for benefits similar to food stamps, TANF, SSI, and Medicaid. The State of New York has more limited supplemental programs which are described in detail later in this report and elsewhere (Zimmermann and Tumlin 1999).
  • Affidavit of support. As required by law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implemented a new Affidavit of Support in December 1997 that applies to all family and a few employment-based immigrants.(5) Sponsors of immigrants applying on or after December 19, 1997 must sign a legally enforceable affidavit of support before their relatives can qualify to immigrate. Sponsors must have household incomes equal to or greater than 125 percent of the poverty level to qualify.(6) Under the terms of the new affidavits, there are two additional considerations for sponsored immigrants:
    1. Deeming. Federal and state agencies administering means-tested programs should consider the income of sponsors in determining the immigrants' income eligibility. This could render most immigrants ineligible even after the five-year bar expires.
    2. Sponsor liability. Federal and state agencies administering benefit programs may also issue claims and sue sponsors to recoup the cost of benefits paid to or on behalf of immigrants they sponsored. Sponsors are liable until the immigrant naturalizes or has worked for 10 years in the United States.

Many of the restrictions on eligibility affect post-enactment immigrants. Therefore, the number of legal immigrants affected will grow as the years pass, as new immigrants continue to enter the United States. Because this survey was conducted in late 1999 and early 2000, it represents a relatively early view of the effects of the new immigrant-eligibility restrictions. In 2001, at the time this report was written, a larger number of immigrants were ineligible for federal benefit programs, and this number will increase further if there are no major changes in program eligibility rules.

While welfare reform legislation restricted federal eligibility rules for immigrants, other policy forces may also have affected immigrants' perceptions and opportunities. During much of the 1990s, there were widely reported public debates about the role of immigrants in the economy and society. In California, for example, the debate was particularly fierce; then-Governor Wilson's concern about illegal immigration was an important part of his policy agenda. In 1994, the state enacted the controversial Proposition 187, which sought to cut off state funding to services for undocumented immigrants, including public education and prenatal and other medical care.(7)

In addition, immigrant communities had fears, sometimes exaggerated, that receiving public benefits might lead to problems with the INS or other government agencies because of "public charge" issues. A longstanding element of U.S. immigration law is that, in determining whether to let an applicant become a legal permanent resident, the State Department and the INS may consider whether that person is likely to become a "public charge"  i.e., dependent on the state. Some well-publicized incidents fueled immigrants' longstanding fears of the INS with the result that some eligible legal immigrants avoided benefit programs due to concerns that benefits receipt might endanger their opportunities to adjust legal status, become citizens, or sponsor their relatives to immigrate (Schlosberg and Wiley 1998). At the same time, the implementation of many new welfare-related policies  with eligibility for some programs restricted one year and then restored the next  confused many immigrants, fostering a belief that immigrant families simply were not eligible for benefits. These factors chilled participation in benefits programs not only among noncitizen immigrants but also among their families, which often include U.S.-born children. Studies have revealed the declining use of benefits by citizen children in immigrant households (Zimmermann and Fix 1998; Brown, Wyn, and Ojeda 1999), and data from the Food and Nutrition Service (2000) indicate that the participation of U.S.-born children of legal immigrants in the federal Food Stamp Program fell 75 percent between 1995 and 1998.

View full report


"report.pdf" (pdf, 2.23Mb)

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®