States Offer Immigrants the Safety Net That Washington Won't

As deportation fears drive some immigrants to give up their government benefits, a new report offers the most comprehensive state-level look at what aid they're legally entitled to.
by | May 23, 2017
Immigrants wait in line at a clinic in Texas. (AP/Eric Gay)

The Trump administration's policies have forced many immigrants into hiding. In his first 100 days in office, immigration arrests were up nearly 40 percent. The fear of deportation has reportedly driven immigrants to avoid contact with authorities of almost any kind -- whether that means keeping their children out of school, not reporting crimes or giving up government benefits they have a right to.

Immigrants can be deported for using cash welfare or long-term institutionalized care. Beyond that, their eligibility for other safety net programs largely depends on the state where they reside.

A new report, published by the Urban Institute, offers the most complete picture to date on what welfare programs are available to people based on their immigration status and reveals major differences across the states.

“It’s very different to be a noncitizen, and particularly an unauthorized immigrant, in California than to be one in Arizona," says Julia Gelatt, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute who co-wrote the report.

In California, for example, adult green card holders have access to Medicaid, nutrition assistance and cash assistance for the elderly. In Arizona, they do not.

The report comes several months after a leaked document from the White House revealed a potential attempt to add to the list of safety net programs that are off-limits to legal immigrants. Trump, however, has not signed the leaked order that was first published by The Washington Post in February.

Most federal safety net programs are already off-limits to immigrants who are here with or without authorization. Gridlock in Washington has stopped any kind of federal immigration reform for more than two decades, leaving state and local governments to decide how to deal with residents who lack citizenship.

"That’s led to this real patchwork of policies across the country," says Gelatt.

In general, green card holders, immigrant children and their pregnant mothers tend to have greater access to state welfare benefits than other immigrants who lack citizenship, according to the Urban Institute report.

For their first five years in the U.S., adult green card holders don't have access to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. But five states fund nutrition assistance for those immigrants: California, Connecticut, Maine, Minnesota and Washington state.

The story is similar for children of green card holders: They're ineligible for federal Medicaid funds, but a growing number of states have extended Medicaid benefits to them.

The report combines data collected by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Urban Institute, the Migration Policy Institute and the National Immigration Law Center. It comes at a time when social service providers are concerned that increased immigration arrests and deportations are discouraging immigrants from using safety net programs that are available to them under the law.

Health-care professionals in California, for instance, say immigrant families are now more likely to skip doctor's appointments and less likely to share personal information with government health programs, according to a recent survey.

In March, the Denver City Attorney told NPR that four domestic violence victims decided not to pursue their cases for fear of being arrested at the county courthouse by federal immigration agents. That's in line with findings from a national survey of domestic violence advocates and attorneys, in which 78 percent said that immigrant victims were hesitant to contact the police.

It's too early to know the full impact of the Trump administration's immigration policies, but past economic research suggests that heightened immigration enforcement in the 1990s had a chilling effect on eligible immigrant children enrolling in Medicaid.

"The principle underlying these programs is to make sure that people have what they need so that they can continue contributing to the state’s economy and to have a safety net when they can’t," says Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. "That’s what is being threatened right now."

The leaked document from the White House called for an immigration policy that "does not welcome individuals who are likely to become or have become a burden on taxpayers." It also noted that immigrants use means-tested public benefits at higher rates than native-born residents.

That's true because the overall immigrant population has less wealth than native-born residents, but when holding income equal, research shows immigrants are actually less likely to use public benefits.