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Do Immigrants Qualify for Social Service Benefits? A Guide for Non-citizens
By Lee Price
Immigration Law Contributor

     The 1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Welfare Reform Act, informally known as Welfare Reform restricted immigrants’ access to benefit programs. However, although – and to some extent because -- the regulations are complicated, all aliens residing in the U.S.,
including the undocumented, can still obtain significant relieffrom hardship.

There are several factors to an immigrant or immigrant family’s
advantage. First, a household may obtain helpful services if an eligible individual, such as a U.S. citizen child, lives there. Second the state government administers federal welfare programs; in most states, including Illinois, only the individual(s) receiving benefits need confirm immigration status. Finally, the state of Illinois does not report anyone to the BCIS unless it has proof of a valid, non-appealable order of deportation against the person. Immigrants’ rights organizations in the state of Illinois are not aware of a single instance in which the state has reported an immigrant to BCIS.

As a result, an immigrant in need has much to gain by checking with the state about programs an individual or a family may take advantage of. In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) is the place to contact.

A Layered System
When people talk about “benefits” they often mean a specific set of programs technically called “federal public benefits.” These include five very well-known means-tested programs:

1.Food Stamps (subsidize grocery expenses),
2.Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF (straight cash assistance), 3.Medicaid (medical insurance),
4.SCHIP (medical insurance for children) and
5.Supplemental Security Income or SSI (straight cash assistance for elderly and disabled). Access to these programs is the most restricted, but many states have used their own funds to soften the federal rules, as we’ll discuss below.

In addition, there are many federally-funded programs that don’t
meet the strict definition of a “federal public benefit,” or have been exempted from that definition by the Attorney General. Examples include – but are by no means limited to – emergency shelter, substance abuse programs, meals-on-wheels, and public health immunizations. Access to these services is much wider.

Finally, there are state, local and private programs the immigrant or his family may take advantage of. In this article we’ll discuss federal and state “means-tested” programs; that is, programs which have income and household size guidelines. We’ll address unrestricted government and private services in a future article.

Federal Public Benefits
The Welfare Reform Act defined certain categories of immigrants it termed “qualified”: lawful permanent residents (green card holders), refugees, asylees, those granted withholding of removal, Cuban-Haitian, Highland Laotian, paroled, conditional entrants, and abused non-citizens.

The State of Illinois treats the following additional categories as
qualified: victims of trafficking, American Indians born in Canada, Amerasians and Hmong.

Being “qualified” is generally necessary but not sufficient to
receive federal public benefits, including the five programs mentioned above. The general federal rule is that applicants must have been in the U.S. longer than five years to receive benefits under Food Stamps, TANF, Medicaid (except emergency treatment), and SCHIP; and a seven year limit on services applies to refugees in the SSI program. However, political lobbying has produced some exceptions at the federal level: Children, and disabled and blind immigrants, aren’t subject to the five-year bar for Food Stamps, and refugees can apply immediately for all five programs.

In addition, many states have softened or removed the federal
limitations through the use of their own governments’ funds. In Illinois, waiting periods have been shortened or eliminated for qualified immigrants, and many programs give special consideration to particular groups.

Examples include:

* There is no five-year period for any qualified immigrant child
applying for Medicaid or SCHIP (called KidCare in Illinois)

* There is no five-year waiting period for qualified survivors of
domestic abuse applying for TANF and Medicaid.

* WlC (a nutrition program for women, infants and children) is open to all noncitizens, including the undocumented.

* KidCare Moms and Babies (pre-natal, labor and delivery and post partum care) is open to all noncitizens, regardless of immigration status

The variability in the rules, and the fact that there are frequent
changes, means that eligibility for these programs is wider than an individual person or family might assume – so it is worth checking. However, it is important to note that an immigrant who can legally receive benefits under any of these programs must meet the same criteria as U.S. citizens for these federal public benefits. This is an important point, because any mis-statement an immigrant makes about his or her income, household size or other measure can have a negative impact on a later application for lawful permanent residency or citizenship.

State Means-Tested Benefits
An immigrant residing in Illinois who can receive services, or who
lives in a household with someone else who can, should check into the many adjunct or sub-programs specifically for recipients of means-tested benefits, for example, employment programs for adults receiving Food Stamps or TANF, or programs for parents of a child receiving TANF benefits.

In addition, a person who qualifies for these federally-funded programs may also qualify for state-funded means-tested benefits programs. In Illinois an example is General Assistance, which provides people with money and limited medical care when they do not qualify for other cash programs administered by the IDHS.

Taming the Complications
The benefits picture is so complicated that finding services can be the hardest part. There are at least three places to go for help. One is an ethnic community organization, which often has someone(s) on staff paid to sort out the possibilities. A second is an advocacy group, such as the Midwest Immigrants and Human Rights Center, dedicated to helping immigrants receive all services to which they are entitled. Finally, there are many benefits programs for case management alone. An inquiry to any large charitable or government organization about “case management” services may produce the type of assistance an immigrant and/or his family can use to get the relief they need.