Congress Must Simplify Confusing SNAP Rules That Contribute to Food Insecurity among Immigrant Families

By Alice Aluoch and Juliana Zhou  

Immigrants are essential members of our communities, yet they are often excluded from social safety net programs that their tax dollars subsidize for U.S. citizens. This exclusion was not always the case, but it changed in 1996 when federal law prohibited most adult immigrants from receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for five years after receiving their green cards. This policy is known as the “five-year bar.”  

Combined with other restrictions based on immigration status, income, family size, and work requirements, the five-year waiting period creates a punishingly complex path to SNAP access that confuses immigrants, caseworkers, immigration attorneys, and policymakers. The five-year bar also contributes to the higher rates of food insecurity for immigrant and mixed-status households. 

SNAP policies discourage immigrants who are food insecure from applying for nutrition benefits, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and punishing them for being unable to achieve self-sufficiency. The Farm Bill, which includes statutes and policies governing food and nutrition programs, is currently up for reauthorization. As members of Congress debate provisions to include in the Farm Bill, they should consider how deeply interwoven immigrants are into the social fabric, economy, and food supply chain of the United States. The future of SNAP must include immigrants and their families by removing the five-year bar and creating a SNAP program that supports immigrants when they need it.  

A recent report from CLASP and the Community Partnership Group spells out the racist and xenophobic stereotypes that underpin the five-year bar, work requirements, and other arbitrary rules.  

A family eats and is nourished as a unit  

Although children are not subject to the five-year bar and can receive SNAP benefits even if their parents can’t, this is not how the policy works in real life. As a person with lived experience of SNAP, Alice knows that when parents don’t have access to benefits, they are unlikely to apply on their kids’ behalf. They may not even be aware that their kids qualify for SNAP. Additionally, in a mixed-status family, the total benefit amount reflects only those eligible for benefits. In practical terms, this means that mixed-eligibility families experience higher levels of food insecurity than families in which all members qualify for SNAP. When some members of a family are deemed deserving of nutrition benefits but others are not, the entire family goes hungry.  

Current SNAP eligibility policies force immigrants to navigate a complex bureaucratic system that doesn’t reflect their lived realities. Welfare rules can be confusing, and this confusion becomes even greater when immigrants try to understand how welfare and immigration rules affect each other.  

The inherent cruelty of asking families to wait five years for food assistance 

The five-year bar is both ineffective and cruel because it denies new immigrant families help precisely when they need it most and when SNAP benefits could do the most good. By withholding the social safety net from immigrants for the initial, crucial five years after they receive their green card, the five-year bar puts immigrant and their families at risk of malnutrition, chronic illness, and even death. Immigrant families at risk of poverty are pushed further into the cycle of poverty and then struggle for years to break out. A SNAP program that works is one that ensures people’s needs are met when they are most in need, not a system that traps individuals eager to build a new life into cycles of poverty. 

Caseworkers and attorneys need better training on eligibility rules  

A lack of adequate training has resulted in instances where caseworkers turn away eligible immigrant applicants based on the mistaken belief that they don’t qualify. Immigration attorneys without extensive knowledge of public benefits often advise their clients to forgo all safety net programs. Many eligible green card holders assume they should not seek services. Many immigrants describe experiences of caseworkers incorrectly stating that they don’t qualify for benefits even if they have been green card holders for more than five years or are applying for benefits for their U.S. citizen children. As a result, many believe that any non-citizen is completely ineligible for any public benefits, including SNAP. 

The cost of misinformation  

Misinformation and lack of information within immigrant communities have been detrimental, causing widespread confusion and deterring eligible immigrants from seeking critical services. A good example is the chilling effect of public charge, which saw many parents shying away from seeking benefits for their children out of fear of being considered a public charge and denied citizenship in the future.  

The need for outreach and education at all levels is so great that the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition (PIF) developed letters to help immigrants access benefits. This sample letter in English and Spanish offers guidance to immigrants and their attorneys about how applying for and participating in benefits programs may affect the immigration process. It is also a self-advocacy tool for immigrants to use with caseworkers.  

Lawmakers are concerned about program costs. But the cost of feeding people when they need support will always be less than the social and economic cost of allowing people to go hungry and suffer needlessly. Congress must eliminate the five-year bar and stop trapping immigrant families into cycles of poverty.  

Alice Aluoch, a co-author of this post, is a consultant with the Community Partnership Group under CLASP, which is a group of experts with lived experience who advocate in institutions of power and with decision-makers for access to public benefits.