Verify: Are most immigrants on welfare?

By Anthony Cave

President Donald Trump touted his support of new legislation Wednesday that would create a merit-based system for legal immigration.

White House press release on the bill, called the RAISE Act, claimed that low-skilled immigration into the United States depresses wages. 

But this stood out to us in particular:

“More than 50 percent of all immigrant households receive welfare benefits, compared to only 30 percent of native households in the United States that receive welfare benefits,” the release states.

So we wondered, are the majority of immigrant households on welfare?

Source of claim

The Trump administration’s claim appears to stem from a 2015 Center for Immigration Studies report which found that, in 2012, 51 percent of households “headed by an immigrant” used at least one welfare program, compared to 30 percent for native households. 

CIS advocates for reducing immigration. They analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation.

We also found a 2016 study from the National Academy of Sciences which analyzes Census Current Population Survey data from 2011-13.

They found that more than 58 percent of immigrant households with children use “any welfare.”

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.


The welfare definition in both studies includes free and reduced school lunches, which is “not specifically to people who have applied for assistance,” as The Associated Press notes.

Moreover, specific welfare programs, such as cash assistance and housing, actually have native households using more of these benefits than immigrant households.

“Making the point that half of immigrant households use welfare is not true,” said Kim Rueben, an Urban Institute senior fellow who’s also on the National Academy’s research panel.

The same National Academy study found that less than 50 percent of immigrant households use Medicaid and food assistance as well.

The progressive Center for American Progress said that comparing the two groups is like comparing welfare in a highly developed country to that of “an underdeveloped country.”

“I think there’s a lot more context needed,” said Wendy Cervantes, an immigration policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington D.C. “Studies need to account for income.”

We should also note that qualified immigrants that are new to the United States are “generally banned” from receiving welfare benefits in their first five years.

University of California, Davis Law School Dean and immigration expert Kevin Johnson said immigrants cannot be over consuming public benefits because they are not eligible to receive the benefits in the first place.

“To say that the general rate of use by immigrants of public benefits is anywhere close to 50 percent is an exaggeration and just isn’t supported by the evidence,” he said.

To recap, the Trump administration’s claim that the majority — more than 50 percent — of immigrant households use welfare leaves out important context.

Native households use even more of these benefits in certain categories.

Bottom line, the Trump administration’s claim is not verified.

VERIFY: Sources

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “President Donald J. Trump backs RAISE Act,” Aug. 2, 2017 

Kim Rueben, Urban Institute senior fellow and National Academy of Sciences research panelist

Wendy Cervantes, Center for Law and Social Policy immigration policy analyst

Kevin Johnson, University of California, Davis Law School Dean and immigration expert 

The Associated Press, “AP FACT CHECK: Shaky assumptions in Trump immigration pitch,” Aug. 2, 2017 

Center for Immigration Studies, “Welfare Use by Immigrant and Native Households,” accessed Aug. 4, 2017 

National Academy of Sciences, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” pages 128-29, accessed Aug. 4, 2017 

Center for American Progress, “Immigrants Are Makers, Not Takers,” accessed Aug. 4, 2017 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Overview of Immigrants’ Eligibility For SNAP, TANF, Medicaid And CHIP,” accessed Aug. 4, 2017 

VERIFY: Resources

READ: Full text of the RAISE Act

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