Significant restrictions exist on the use of federal public assistance for noncitizens. Nevertheless, some forms of assistance are available, especially to permanent residents, once certain conditions are met. US immigration authorities do not have jurisdiction over federal public assistance programs, and the USCIS lacks the authority to determine whether you are eligible for these benefits.

Federal Public Assistance - Qualified Immigrants

“Qualified” Immigrants

The rules on eligibility for federal public assistance are far stricter on immigrants who are not “qualified.” You are “qualified” if:

  • You are a permanent resident (you hold a valid “green card”);
  • You have been designated a refugee;
  • You have been designated an asylee under US asylum law;
  • You have been granted withholding of deportation/removal;
  • You were granted conditional entry before Apr. 1, 1980;
  • You have been paroled into the U.S. for at least one year;
  • You entered the US under the Cuban/Hatian entrant program;
  • You are a battered spouse or child, a parent of a battered child, or a child of a battered parent, with a pending or approved immigrant visa petition (including self-petitioners) or application for cancellation of removal/suspension of deportation, if your need for these benefits is related to the battery you suffered;
  • You are a victim of trafficking (or the beneficiary of such a victim) with a T visa or a credible T visa application pending; or
  • You are a trafficking victim who has received a letter of eligibility from the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Federal Public Assistance Programs


Following is a list of popular federal public assistance programs, along with a summary of eligibility requirements for “qualified” and non-qualified immigrants. If you are qualified, remember that the rules for eligibility are slightly different (and not listed here) if you entered the US before August 22, 1996.

  • Social Security: As a”qualified” immigrant, you are eligible under the same rules that apply to US citizens. If you are not “qualified”, you are eligible only if (i) your presence in the US is lawful and (ii) your eligibility is required under an international agreement.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI): If you are a “qualified” immigrant and you are a permanent resident, you are eligible for SSI if you entered the US at least five years ago. Certain other immigrants, such as refugees and asylees, also enjoy limited availability.
  • SNAP benefits (“food stamps”): You can receive food stamps if you are (i) a permanent resident with 40 quaters of work experience, (ii) if you are “qualified”and under 18, (iii) if you have been”qualified”for at least five years even if you are over 18 and (iv) under certain other circumstances (refugees, trafficking victims, etc.), If you are not “qualified”, you will only be eligible under certain limited circumstances (trafficking victim, etc.).
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“welfare”): You can receive welfare benefits if you have been “qualified” for five years or more, and other certain other circumstances.
  • You can receive emergency Medicaid without restriction regardless of whether you are qualified. “Emergency” Medicaid includes labor and delivery treatment for pregnant mothers. Other forms of Medicaid can be obtained by immigrants who (i) have been “qualified” for five years or more (ii) are pregnant or under 21 (in some states) and (iii) under certain other circumstances (refugees, asylees, etc.). If you are pregnant or under 21, you must be lawfully present in the US to receive anything other than emergency Medicaid services.
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP): CHIP benefits are available on virtually the same terms as Medicaid.
  • Medicare: Part A (for hospitalization) is available to “qualified” immigrants on the same terms as US citizens, and to non-qualified immigrants if they are lawfully present and legally employed. “Buy-in” Medicare is available only to immigrants who have been “qualified” for at least five years.
  • HUD Public Housing and Section 8 Programs (housing assistance): “Qualified”immigrants are eligible, except for certain immigrants from Cuba and Haiti. If one family member qualifies, the entire family can live in such housing subject to a reduction in the subsidy.
Public Assistance Benefits

Receiving Benefits Could Cause Immigration Problems

Just because you are eligible for a particular form of public assistance doesn’t mean that US immigration authorities can’t hold it against you. In many cases a permanent residence application can be denied for the use of certain public assistance programs, even if you were legally entitled to use them. Not all federal public assistance will put you at this kind of risk, however. At present, for example, using CHIP benefits will not trigger immigration scrutiny.

Please check also the New “Public Charge” Rule.

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