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In 1996, Congress drastically altered the way immigrants are treated when it comes to accessing the basic safety net that all Americans rely on from time to time. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 denied immigrants nutritional and medical safety net benefits regardless of their ability to work. Welfare and immigration laws significantly restricted legal immigrants’ access to most major federal public benefits programs, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Food Stamps, Medicaid, the state Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Unlike citizens, whose eligibility for welfare depends on their ability to work, immigrants were denied benefits regardless of their ability to work. Since the enactment of these laws, Congress recognized that it went too far in 1996, and has restored some safety net benefits for particular groups of immigrants. Yet for the most part, immigrants do not have access to the very safety net programs which are supported by their taxes, simply because they are not citizens.
Passage of these restrictions and confusing sets of criteria for eligibility for different federal benefits programs, the partial restoration of benefits since 1996, and the lack of outreach and education towards immigrants and local agencies, has caused confusion not only to immigrants but to those who serve or advocate on their behalf. Many immigrants, even when eligible for public benefits, do not apply for fear that accepting benefits will have consequences for their immigration status or that of someone in their family. Even when immigrants are aware of their rights, local agencies sometimes mistakenly deny benefits to immigrants who are entitled to them, or ask for information that may discourage an applicant from obtaining the benefit. Immigrants with limited English proficiency face additional barriers when service provider agencies fail to make appropriate language translation services available to their clients.
National and local organizations and advocacy groups have been filling the gap in assisting immigrants to navigate the various and continuously changing public benefits laws and policies. Immigrants should have access to public benefits that they pay for with their taxes.