Immigrants Have Been Waiting 25 Years for the LIFT the BAR Act

By Juliana Zhou 

Immigrants are essential members of our communities. Yet, for the past 25+ years, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) has barred many struggling immigrant families from basic safety net programs. Fortunately, Congress has an opportunity to end this unjust exclusion with the LIFT the BAR Act.

Since 1996, PRWORA has prevented immigrants from receiving federal means-tested public benefits for five years after they attain lawfully present status. These benefits include, among others, food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and health insurance under Medicaid. In addition, individuals with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are excluded from accessing federal benefits entirely, despite also being lawfully present immigrants.

The harmful effects of PRWORA’s restrictions have rippled out across all aspects of life since its passage. First, this confusing patchwork of eligibility criteria can prevent mixed-status families from seeking benefits altogether. For example, children who are eligible for Medicaid and/or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are more likely to be insured when their parents also qualified for coverage. Therefore, delaying or excluding lawfully present immigrants from accessing benefits also harms the approximately 1.8 million children who have at least one immigrant parent unable to access federal benefits because of the five-year bar or due to their DACA or TPS status.

Second, the five-year bar created obstacles that harm immigrants’ health and wellbeing. Families with at least one immigrant parent experience persistently higher levels of food insecurity than families headed by native-born parents. In addition, 25 percent of lawfully present immigrants are uninsured, compared to 9 percent of U.S. citizens.

Third, the law eroded immigrant communities’ access to education and opportunity. High school graduation rates among Latinx and Asian American youth in immigrant families fell in the years following the law’s enactment. This was true even for those who fell outside the five-year waiting period and were eligible for benefits. All these realities combine to send the message that immigrants and their families are neither welcome in this country nor valued members of our society.

All people should have access to basic needs such as food, housing, and health care regardless of their immigration status. The five-year bar is based on racist narratives that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of public benefits. In reality, these federal public benefits are services that immigrants help pay for through their taxes. It’s long past time to remove this bar so that immigrants are finally able to access the programs they help support.

Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) introduced the LIFT the BAR Act of 2021 on September 10, 2021. Congress must recognize the critical social and economic role that immigrants play in this country by passing this bill.

The LIFT the BAR Act would ensure that lawfully present immigrants are not needlessly barred from benefits for which they would otherwise qualify. It would also prevent anti-immigrant state legislatures from excluding lawfully present immigrants from programs that support basic needs. These crucial provisions include:

  • Repealing the five-year bar established by PRWORA and ensuring that states cannot create barriers to critical services;
  • Redefining the term used to determine eligibility for many federal programs, which will allow DACA recipients and other lawfully present immigrants to access critical programs; and
  • Ensuring that no immigrant group is left worse off—by providing that those who have access to Affordable Care Act health insurance subsidies under current rules (i.e., DACA recipients) will not lose access to affordable coverage if they remain ineligible for Medicaid.

The past two years of living through the COVID-19 public health emergency have revealed just how integral immigrants are to this country’s social and economic wellbeing. They have also shown how frayed our social safety net is and how arbitrary public benefits eligibility can be. Now is the time to finally fix the benefit exclusions that lawfully present immigrants, and their families, have struggled under for the past quarter-century. Congress must pass the LIFT the BAR Act.

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