Fact-Checking the Immigration Reform Debate: Federal Benefits

To be brutally frank, our national discussions on immigration reform are often more of a shouting match than a debate; a “debate” implies orderly, methodical, reasoned argument, bearing little resemblance to the angry free-for-alls into which our public forums all too often degenerate when immigration comes up. These arguments might be more temperate if they were based less on received wisdom and popular misconception, and more on verifiable facts.

For example, anti-immigrant rhetoric often takes it as axiomatic that undocumented immigrants come to the United States because we offer such a rich smorgasbord of federal government benefits, taxpayer-funded sugarplums just waiting to be snatched up by anyone who can make it across our southern border. It’s an appealing narrative in some circles, especially useful in the politics of divide-and-conquer, but it isn’t true, as a study from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) shows. CRS is a Congressional agency tasked with providing unbiased information to members and committees of Congress. (See Unauthorized Aliens’ Access to Federal Benefits: Policy and Issues, by Ruth Ellen Wassem, Congressional Research Service, 20.Aug.2009.)  (PDF 261KB)

The study states up-front that, “[e]xcept for a narrow set of specified emergency services and programs, unauthorized aliens are not eligible for federal public benefits. The law (§401(c) of P.L. 104-193) defines federal public benefit as:

“any grant, contract, loan, professional license, or commercial license provided by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States; and any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post secondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments or assistance are provided to an individual, household, or family eligibility unit by an agency of the United States or by appropriated public funds of the United States.”

As the CRS study makes clear, the 1996 welfare act tightly restricts eligibility for federal benefits, preventing unauthorized aliens from receiving them except under narrowly-drawn circumstances such as:

  • emergency medical treatment under Medicaid (except for those related to organ transplants)
  • short-term, in-kind emergency disaster relief
  • immunizations against, as well as testing for and treatment of communicable diseases
  • services or assistance (such as soup kitchens, crisis counseling and intervention, and short-term shelters) designated by the Attorney General as (1) delivering in-kind services at the community level, (2) providing assistance without individual determinations of each recipient’s needs, and (3) being necessary to the protection of life and safety
  • certain HUD and rural development programs, for people who were receiving them as of the date of enactment of the 1996 welfare act
  • the federally-supported school meal program, and a handful of other federal nutrition programs, at the option of participating states

As with so many of the bumper-sticker simplicities that circulate in the public sphere, the truth is often far removed from what the popular imagination thinks it knows as truth. This is not to say that anti-immigrant activists will be happy with a more nuanced and accurate picture of the few federal benefits provided to undocumented immigrants, but at least it provides a better basis for rational discussion of the costs and benefits of current policy – and rational discussion beats a shouting match, any day of the week.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.