25 Years of Immigrant Exclusion from Public Benefits

By: Juan Gomez and Parker Gilkesson

Access to food, cash assistance, health care, and housing are pathways to economic justice that everyone deserves—no matter their citizenship status. However, federal restrictions enacted 25 years ago interfere with the ability of immigrants to secure critical benefits with significant consequences to their and their families’ wellbeing.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) established a five-year waiting period for legal permanent residents in accessing federal public benefits for which they would otherwise be eligible, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The 1996 law to restrict access to these programs was fueled by racist anti-immigrant narratives such as “immigrants are coming here to get welfare” and “we shouldn’t spend U.S. citizen taxpayer dollars.” The reality is that most immigrants are taxpayers and contribute greatly to our economy, including supporting the very programs and benefits they are barred from using.

It has been 25 years since the passage of PRWORA, and immigrants and their families are still harmed by this racist law. Among our nation’s nonelderly population in 2018, 9 percent of citizens were uninsured compared to 23 percent of lawfully present immigrants. Moreover, children with an immigrant parent are twice as likely to be uninsured than children who have citizen parents. Immigrant families are more likely to be food insecure, and more than 20 percent of immigrant families with low incomes reported issues paying for their rent or mortgage. The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues because immigrant families have been overrepresented as essential workers but left out of relief.

A quarter of all U.S. children have an immigrant parent—but even though the majority of those children are U.S. citizens, their parents are often reluctant to seek critical services on their behalf. PRWORA’s five-year bar, along with other anti-immigrant policies, such as the Trump Administration’s public charge rule, aim to restrict and eliminate access to programs meant to support parents and their families. As a result, children in immigrant families are more likely to face poverty and associated hardship, which can have lifelong impacts on their health, development, and wellbeing. Congress subsequently modified the ban to allow immigrant children to receive nutrition benefits under SNAP, and some states have expanded access to health coverage to immigrant children. However, research demonstrates that when parents are able to enroll in public benefits, they are more likely to enroll their children as well. Additionally, when parents can meet their own basic needs, they are also better able to meet their children’s needs.

Congress must act now and remove the five-year bar to ensure that immigrant families can access supports they need to thrive. The United States cannot move forward on the road to recovery without addressing harmful policies that deny families critical assistance.