A very simple way to define an immigrant would be a person who is living in a different country than the one in which they were born. Immigration laws vary widely from country to country, and can change frequently, generally with each new administration in terms of immigrating to the United States. Most immigrant categories require obtaining a visa.

According to United States immigration law, an immigrant visa is a type of document allowing a foreign national to enter the United States. A visa allows the immigrant to eventually apply for lawful permanent residency. These visas are distinguished by the applicant’s general intent to relocate permanently to the United States. The reason for this is usually because lawful permanent residents are often granted extensive rights, such as the right to employment in the country as well as citizenship.

This type of visa is in contrast to other types of non-immigrant visas, in which the applicant only intends to stay in the United States temporarily. Examples of such visas include student visas or temporary work visas.

Some specific examples of immigrant categories as listed on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website include:

  • Family based, such as immediate family, fiances, etc.;
  • Employment based, meaning that an employer is petitioning a worker to permanently relocate to the United States;
  • Special immigration, such as religious workers or applicants from select countries;
  • Refugee or asylum status;
  • Human trafficking;
  • Crime victims;
  • Victims of abuse;
  • Various other categories, such as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program; and
  • Through registry, if the immigrant has resided continuously in the United States prior to January 1st of 1972.

Are Immigrants Entitled to Receive Public Benefits? Which Ones?

Public benefits are assistance programs that are intended to provide for those in need. Such programs include food, medical, and financial assistance. These programs vary widely from state to state, in terms of what public benefits are offered and who qualifies to receive such benefits. Supplemental Security Income and social security are two examples of public benefits.

In terms of whether immigrants are entitled to receive public benefits, that depends entirely on how the person is categorized, as well as the laws of the state in which they are seeking benefits. Most public benefit programs maintain means testing for eligibility; meaning, the applicant generally cannot exceed a certain income threshold. The majority of public benefits are accessed by taxpayers.

Unfortunately, undocumented immigrants are generally not eligible for federal public benefits. This includes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) holders. They are ineligible for means tested programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) and Medicaid, among others. Additionally, they may not receive healthcare subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

However, immigrants who are as yet undocumented may receive some benefits that are considered to be necessary in order to protect life or otherwise guarantee safety. Some examples of such programs include:

  • Emergency Medicaid;
  • Access to treatment in hospital emergency rooms; and
  • Access to healthcare and nutrition programs that are under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Children, and Infants (known as “WIC”).

Those who have Lawful Permanent Resident status (“LPR”) are eligible for federal public benefits once they have resided within the United States for at least five years. It is important to note that even when meeting this condition, an applicant does not have full access to all public benefit programs. They are subject to limitations before they may be considered eligible for any federal means tested benefits. In these ways, the United States has made it so it is nearly impossible for immigrants to receive any sort of federal public benefits.

At the state level, there are 26 states in which immigrants are eligible to receive state funded public benefits. An example of such benefits would be New York’s Safety Net Assistance, which can help cover some expenses such as temporary housing costs.

How Can Immigrants Apply to Receive Public Benefits?

It is imperative to note that both documented and undocumented immigrants contribute more to public benefits programs than they receive. Especially when considering that undocumented immigrants cannot even access the federal public benefit programs to which they are contributing, it is important to determine how immigrants can apply to receive whatever public benefits are available to them.

In terms of how to apply to receive public benefits, the process varies based on the type of benefits being requested, as well as whether those benefits are offered by the federal or state government. Generally speaking, applying to receive public benefits entails:

  • Completing and filing all paperwork and applications required by the specific benefit program;
  • Providing evidence of eligibility factors, such as pay stubs, tax returns, etc.; and
  • Submitting to periodic recertification, such as updating financial information, attending educational programs as required by the public benefit program, etc.

The majority of public benefit programs have their eligibility requirements as well as applications listed on their website.

Can Immigrants Lose Their Benefits?

Simply put, yes, immigrants can easily lose their benefits. This is especially true in sponsorship circumstances. A person’s sponsor is generally held responsible for repaying the cost of public benefits, if the immigrant receives any sort of welfare or assistance. Additionally, the sponsor may be sued in court for these costs if they do not repay them.

Worse still, if the immigration agency cannot collect repayment for cash benefits related to income maintenance or the cost of long term institutional care, the agency is allowed to initiate deportation proceedings. However, it is important to note that the repayment of public benefits is not a requirement for immigrants to adjust their status, nor to be admitted into the United States.

These harsh rules are an attempt to ensure that immigrants are not dependent on the government to live. Another way of saying this is that they do not become “public charges.” If they somehow receive any means-tested public benefits, they may be considered a “public charge.” This can result in the immigrant having their application for permanent residency, a green card, or an entry visa denied. In rare but cruel cases, deportation may also result.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Immigrant Eligibility for Public Benefits?

As of March 2021, the USCIS announced that the following related to COVID-19 will not be used against immigrants in public charge testing:

  • Testing for;
  • Preventing;
  • Treating; and
  • Vaccinating.

However, neither the CARES Act nor the Families First Act have been updated to include Medicaid for immigrant families during COVID-19. Community Health Centers, or CHCs, provide healthcare to anyone regardless of their immigration status or their ability to pay. This is especially important in terms of immigrants receiving medical care related to COVID-19, as states that have not expanded their Medicaid program will not likely cover immigrants although COVID-19 care is considered to be emergency services.

Immigrants who are considered to be “lawfully present” could be eligible to purchase subsidized health insurance provided by the Marketplace.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with Immigrant Public Benefit Issues?

If you are an immigrant in need of public benefits, or are experiencing issues obtaining public benefits, you should speak with an experienced local immigration attorney. Such an attorney will be aware of your state’s specific laws and programs, and which public benefits you may be entitled to receive. A local immigration lawyer will also be aware of to best protect your legal rights, and will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.