1996 federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Welfare
Reform Act, informally known as Welfare Reform restricted immigrants’
access to benefit programs. However, although – and to some
extent because -- the regulations are complicated, all aliens residing
in the U.S.,
including the undocumented, can still obtain significant relieffrom
There are several factors to an immigrant or immigrant
advantage. First, a household may obtain helpful services if an
eligible individual, such as a U.S. citizen child, lives there.
Second the state government administers federal welfare programs;
in most states, including Illinois, only the individual(s) receiving
benefits need confirm immigration status. Finally, the state of
Illinois does not report anyone to the BCIS unless it has proof
of a valid, non-appealable order of deportation against the person.
Immigrants’ rights organizations in the state of Illinois
are not aware of a single instance in which the state has reported
an immigrant to BCIS.
a result, an immigrant in need has much to gain by checking with
the state about programs an individual or a family may take advantage
of. In Illinois, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS)
is the place to contact.
A Layered System
When people talk about “benefits” they often mean a
specific set of programs technically called “federal public
benefits.” These include five very well-known means-tested
1.Food Stamps (subsidize grocery expenses),
2.Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF (straight cash
assistance), 3.Medicaid (medical insurance),
4.SCHIP (medical insurance for children) and
5.Supplemental Security Income or SSI (straight cash assistance
for elderly and disabled). Access to these programs is the most
restricted, but many states have used their own funds to soften
the federal rules, as we’ll discuss below.
In addition, there are many federally-funded programs
meet the strict definition of a “federal public benefit,”
or have been exempted from that definition by the Attorney General.
Examples include – but are by no means limited to –
emergency shelter, substance abuse programs, meals-on-wheels, and
public health immunizations. Access to these services is much wider.
there are state, local and private programs the immigrant or his
family may take advantage of. In this article we’ll discuss
federal and state “means-tested” programs; that is,
programs which have income and household size guidelines. We’ll
address unrestricted government and private services in a future
Federal Public Benefits
The Welfare Reform Act defined certain categories of immigrants
it termed “qualified”: lawful permanent residents (green
card holders), refugees, asylees, those granted withholding of removal,
Cuban-Haitian, Highland Laotian, paroled, conditional entrants,
and abused non-citizens.
The State of Illinois treats the following additional categories
qualified: victims of trafficking, American Indians born in Canada,
Amerasians and Hmong.
Being “qualified” is generally necessary
but not sufficient to
receive federal public benefits, including the five programs mentioned
above. The general federal rule is that applicants must have been
in the U.S. longer than five years to receive benefits under Food
Stamps, TANF, Medicaid (except emergency treatment), and SCHIP;
and a seven year limit on services applies to refugees in the SSI
program. However, political lobbying has produced some exceptions
at the federal level: Children, and disabled and blind immigrants,
aren’t subject to the five-year bar for Food Stamps, and refugees
can apply immediately for all five programs.
addition, many states have softened or removed the federal
limitations through the use of their own governments’ funds.
In Illinois, waiting periods have been shortened or eliminated for
qualified immigrants, and many programs give special consideration
to particular groups.
* There is no five-year period for any qualified immigrant child
applying for Medicaid or SCHIP (called KidCare in Illinois)
is no five-year waiting period for qualified survivors of
domestic abuse applying for TANF and Medicaid.
* WlC (a nutrition program for women, infants and children) is open
to all noncitizens, including the undocumented.
KidCare Moms and Babies (pre-natal, labor and delivery and post
partum care) is open to all noncitizens, regardless of immigration
The variability in the rules, and the fact that
there are frequent
changes, means that eligibility for these programs is wider than
an individual person or family might assume – so it is worth
checking. However, it is important to note that an immigrant who
can legally receive benefits under any of these programs must meet
the same criteria as U.S. citizens for these federal public benefits.
This is an important point, because any mis-statement an immigrant
makes about his or her income, household size or other measure can
have a negative impact on a later application for lawful permanent
residency or citizenship.
State Means-Tested Benefits
An immigrant residing in Illinois who can receive services, or who
lives in a household with someone else who can, should check into
the many adjunct or sub-programs specifically for recipients of
means-tested benefits, for example, employment programs for adults
receiving Food Stamps or TANF, or programs for parents of a child
receiving TANF benefits.
In addition, a person who qualifies for these federally-funded programs
may also qualify for state-funded means-tested benefits programs.
In Illinois an example is General Assistance, which provides people
with money and limited medical care when they do not qualify for
other cash programs administered by the IDHS.
Taming the Complications
The benefits picture is so complicated that finding services can
be the hardest part. There are at least three places to go for help.
One is an ethnic community organization, which often has someone(s)
on staff paid to sort out the possibilities. A second is an advocacy
group, such as the Midwest Immigrants and Human Rights Center, dedicated
to helping immigrants receive all services to which they are entitled.
Finally, there are many benefits programs for case management alone.
An inquiry to any large charitable or government organization about
“case management” services may produce the type of assistance
an immigrant and/or his family can use to get the relief they need.