Accessing Resources: Public Benefits
Federal benefits: Federal means-tested public benefits
Federal laws governing benefit programs require federal agencies that administer the benefits to: (1) develop guidance and eligibility requirements for “federal means-tested public benefits” and (2) identify which of their programs belong in that category. Although there is no statutory definition of “federal means-tested public benefits,” the US Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Agriculture (USDA), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Social Security Administration (SSA) use a shared one:
“…Mandatory spending programs in which the eligibility for the program’s benefit, the amount of such benefits, or both, are determined on the basis of income, resources, or financial need of the individual, household, or family unit seeking the benefit.”
HUD has concluded that none of its programs are federal means-tested public benefits.
Federal means-tested public benefits have the most restrictive rules for immigrant survivors. Eligibility varies depending on the program, but generally speaking, only “qualified immigrants” who meet one or more of the following additional requirements can access federal means-tested public benefits:
- First entry into US before August 22, 1996
- Complete the “five-year” waiting period (for those who entered the US on or after August 22, 1996)
- Exempt from or otherwise overcome “sponsor deeming” of income
- For SSI, become a lawful permanent resident with 40 qualifying quarters of work history in the U.S. or meet one of the other special conditions for immigrants.
See the section “Additional eligibility requirements & Practice issues” for more information.
There are important exceptions to these rules; for example:
- Different states may provide:
o Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance program (CHIP) without a waiting period to lawfully residing children and/or pregnant women
o Prenatal care regardless of the pregnant person’s immigration status under a CHIP program option.
o State-funded medical services to some or all immigrants who are ineligible for federal coverage.
See “Medical assistance programs for immigrants in various states” and the “Guide to immigrant eligibility for federal programs [update page]” by the National Immigration Law Center.
- The Welfare Reform Act gave states the authority toextend state-funded TANF benefits to cover “qualified immigrants” without the five-year waiting period. Doing so can earn the state “maintenance of effort” credit – that is, credit toward the amount of state funds it must spend or match in order to receive the TANF federal grant.
On the other hand, some states may deny TANF and/or Medicaid to certain “qualified immigrants,” even if they complete the five year waiting period. In the states that choose to do so, the following groups are exempt from this restriction:
- Victims of trafficking
- Cubans/Haitian entrants
- Iraqi and Afghan special immigrants
- Immigrants granted withholding of deportation
- Veterans and immigrants on active military duty, their spouses (and surviving spouses, if they have not remarried), and dependent children
- Lawful permanent residents who meet a 40 work-quarter (10 years) requirement
TANF laws and regulations also include special provisions for “qualified immigrant” survivors (see “TANF Family Violence Option”).
See “State and locally funded benefits” for more information.
Tools & Resources
Overview of Immigrant Eligibility for Federal Programsby the National Immigration Law Center lists the general requirements for federal means-tested public benefits.
“Public benefits access for battered immigrant women and children” in Breaking Barriers: A Complete Guide to Legal Rights and Resources for Battered Immigrants provides program-specific eligibility rules for federal means-tested benefits and some federal public benefits.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Pre-screening Eligibility Tool(Cupones para Alimentos: Herramienta de Preevaluación del Cumplimiento con los Requisitos) by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) screening tool(available as “Programa Especial de Nutrición Suplementaria para Mujeres, Bebés y Niños (WIC) herramienta de preselección,” click on the “Spanish/Español link) by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food & Nutrition Service.
Olavarria, C., Baran, A., Orloff, L. & Huang, G. (2013). Public benefits access for battered immigrant women and children. In K. Sullivan & L. Orloff (Eds.), Breaking Barriers: A Complete Guide to Legal Rights and Resources for Battered Immigrants. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.
 The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 changed the name of the federal Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and of the Food Stamp Act of 1977 to the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008. States retained the flexibility to name their programs but were encouraged to change the name to SNAP or another alternate name.
Olavarria, C., Baran, A., Orloff, L. & Huang, G. (2013). Public benefits access for battered immigrant women and children. In Breaking Barriers: A Complete Guide to Legal Rights and Resources for Battered Immigrants.
 Fata, S., Orloff, L.E. & Drew, M. (2013). Access to programs and services that can help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. In L. Orloff (Ed.), Empowering Survivors: Legal Rights of Immigrant Victims of Sexual Assault. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.
 See pages 265-271, “Specific rules for some important federal benefit programs” (SSI, SNAP (referred to as “Food Stamps”), TANF (including the Family Violence Option), Medicaid, public housing, education, and nutrition programs).
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