Are Federal Public Benefits Available to Undocumented Immigrants?
June 25, 2019
The Trump administration has made immigration the centerpiece of its domestic policy agenda, citing among other things the cost of undocumented immigrants to the U.S. Several statements made on social media platforms have cast the immigrant population as a burden to public benefit programs, however many undocumented immigrants live as law abiding citizens, paying both state and federal income taxes, as well as property, state, and local sales taxes.
Although these taxes contribute to federal and state public benefit programs, undocumented immigrants, including those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, are only eligible for a few federal benefits, such as:
- Treatment in emergency rooms
- Emergency treatment covered by Medicaid if eligibility requirements are met and the treatment is unrelated to an organ transplant procedure
- Testing for communicable diseases and treatment of symptoms of such diseases
- Health care and nutrition programs, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- Emergency disaster relief that is short-term
In some cases, assistance or services for undocumented immigrants may be available under a 2001 order from the U.S. Attorney General that included among others, programs for the homeless, soup kitchens and meal delivery, disability and substance abuse programs as needed to protect life or safety, and public health, medical, and mental health services.
All children, regardless of their immigration status, may attend free public school from kindergarten to grade 12. While enrolled in school, they may participate in federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch programs. If eligible, they may also enroll in Head Start or Early Head Start programs.
Exclusions from Federal Public Benefits
As a rule, undocumented immigrants are excluded from most federal public benefits. This includes:
- Regular Medicaid
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Healthcare subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
Undocumented immigrants are also unable to purchase unsubsidized health coverage on an ACA exchange.
Immigrants without legal status in the United States are excluded from most state and local assistance programs. They are also ineligible for government contracts, licenses, grants, and loans. However, some of the public benefit programs listed above that serve undocumented immigrants are run by states with assistance from federal grants. WIC tries to identify infants and children up to age five who are at nutritional risk and provide them with supplemental food and health care referrals. Nutritional education is also available to low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women.
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