What Public Benefits Can a Green Card Holder Receive?

If you are a U.S. green card holder (“permanent resident”) who finds yourself in need, you might consider applying for public benefits (government financial or other assistance, often called "welfare" or "food stamps").

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are a U.S. green card holder ("permanent resident") who finds yourself in need, you might consider applying for public benefits (government financial or related assistance, sometimes called "welfare"). However, you probably have a lot of questions, such as:

  • Do I qualify for any public benefits at all?
  • Will receiving public benefits put me at risk of losing my permanent resident status or being deported, or being unable to return to the U.S. after foreign travel?

We'll answer the first question below, and the second in If You've Received Public Benefits, Leaving U.S. Risks Being Refused Reentry.

To clarify, the information that follows is intended only for U.S. permanent residents (people with green cards). If you hold any other status, for example if you are an asylee, a DACA recipient or nonimmigrant visa holder (such as an H-1B worker), the public benefit rules that apply to you could be very different.

What Basic Immigration Benefits Come With a Green Card?

Before covering direct financial benefits or similar forms of public assistance, let's reflect upon the advantages to having a green card in the first place; particularly as compared with having a temporary visa or being in the United States with no immigration status (undocumented). Some of these can indirectly help you avoid public assistance, by assisting you to be self-supporting. The advantages include:

  • Automatic right to work. Green card holders can accept a job with any U.S. employer without needing to apply for a separate work permit or having to ask the employer to sponsor you. Your employer must obey labor laws and treat you the same as any other employee, without discriminating.
  • Eligibility for unemployment benefits. If you have been working at a wage-paying job, and lose that job through no fault of your own, you have as much right as any worker to collect unemployment benefits. This is different from a "public benefit" in that it's not a form of government-provided support, but simply an insurance program that employers must pay into, with slightly different rules in each state.
  • Automatic right to study, possibly with in-state tuition. A green card holder can study at any U.S. school, or transfer between schools, without needing a foreign-student visa or other special permission. You might be able to pay the in-state or resident tuition rates, which are typically much lower than a foreign student would pay.
  • Travel rights. Whether you're traveling within the United States or to countries abroad, a green card allows you fairly simple access. The exception would be if you leave the U.S. for so long that you're considered to have abandoned your U.S. residence, or if while you're abroad you commit a crime or do something else that makes you inadmissible to the United States, as described in Leaving and Returning to the U.S. With a Green Card.
  • Pathway to U.S. citizenship. Green card holders may apply for naturalization after meeting various requirements, including that they have both held a green card and lived in the United States for a minimum amount of time. U.S. citizenship is a much more secure status, and will protect you from the possibility of deportation. (See Grounds of Deportability: When Legal U.S. Residents Can Be Removed.) In most cases, it will take at least five years to become eligible for citizenship, but it's only three years for those who've been married to and living with a U.S. citizen all that time. (Also see How Absences From the U.S. Affect Eligibility for U.S. Citizenship.) There's no need to give up the citizenship of your home country at this time, if at all. (See Dual Citizenship Allowed for Naturalizing U.S. Citizens.)
  • Ability to sponsor family members for green cards. Permanent residents can petition for foreign-born spouses and unmarried children. (See Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories.)

Of course, with your rights as a green card holder come various responsibilities. You can lose your immigration status by, for example, committing a crime or violating the law, neglecting to advise USCIS when you move and change address, or doing something else that matches one of the grounds of deportability found in Section 237 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.).

What Financial and Related Public Benefits Are Green-Card Holding Immigrants Normally Eligible For?

The types of cash or other public benefits a permanent resident can receive depend, naturally, on the eligibility requirements of the specific program. Precise benefit amounts depend on the federal, state, or county that's providing the benefit, as well as factors such as family size. To find out whether you meet the eligibility requirements for a public benefit, you'll need to inquire with a local public benefits office. This article will give you an overview of the programs that green card holders are most likely to be eligible for.

Note that the federal names of benefit programs discussed here might have different names in the state or county where you live. For example, what the federal government calls "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families" (TANF, discussed below), is called "CalWORKs" in California.

In addition, some counties and states have special public benefits programs that are intended for immigrants who cannot qualify for federal public benefit programs. For example, in California some immigrants do not qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI, which grants monthly cash benefits to people with limited income who are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older) because of their immigration status. But they can potentially receive assistance through the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI).

What Factors Play Into Whether a Green Card Holder Is Eligible for Public Benefits or Aid?

Exactly which public benefits a lawful permanent resident (LPR) can receive depends on a number of factors, such as:

  • when the LPR obtained permanent resident status
  • how the LPR obtained permanent resident status
  • whether the LPR has credit for "40 quarters" of work in the U.S.
  • the county or state that the LPR lives in, and
  • whether "deeming rules" apply. Under "deeming rules," the income of an LPR's "sponsor(s)" is also counted when determining whether the LPR can receive public benefits.

We will assume that the LPR received status on or after August 22, 1996 (the date that more restrictive rules about immigrant access to public benefits came into effect) and was never in any of the following categories, to which special (and often more generous) rules apply:

  • asylee
  • refugee
  • withholding of removal recipient
  • Cuban/Haitian special immigrant
  • Amerasian special immigrant
  • victim of trafficking
  • Iraqi or Afghan special immigrant (SIV) visa holder
  • abused spouse or child of a permanent resident or U.S. citizen
  • Native American who was born outside of the U.S.
  • U.S. military veteran
  • active duty member of the U.S. military
  • spouse of a member of the U.S. military
  • surviving, un-remarried spouse of a deceased member of the U.S. military, or
  • surviving child of a deceased member of the U.S. military.

When Can a Green Card Holder Access Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

SSI is a federal benefits program that provides cash assistance to low-income seniors (65 years or older) and low-income disabled children and adults.

Permanent residents (LPRs) cannot apply for SSI benefits until they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. After that time, LPRs will qualify for SSI only if they have credit for 40 "quarters" of work done in the United States. ("Quarters" is a legal term that means a three-month period in which you earn a certain amount of money and therefore paid into your Social Security fund. If you work all year, you'll be credited for four quarters that year, so it will take at least ten years to qualify for SSI.)

There are special rules about how to count the 40 quarters, including:

  • Only work in the U.S. counts towards the 40-quarter requirement.
  • If the person receives any "means-tested public benefits" during a quarter, no credit will be given for that quarter.
  • The work of parents performed while a permanent resident is under age 18 can be counted, and
  • The work of a spouse performed during the marriage (as long as there was no divorce or annulment) can be counted.

In most cases, if you are subject to an active warrant for deportation or removal from the U.S., you'll lose your eligibility for SSI.

When Can a Green Card Holder Access Social Security Benefits?

Permanent residents are ordinarily eligible for Social Security benefits if they have accrued 40 credits of work in the United States, which is approximately equivalent to ten years' worth of work.

Social Security benefits include retirement payments, disability benefits, and survivors' benefits (for the survivors of deceased workers).

But one important eligibility criteria is that if the permanent resident's Social Security number was issued on or after January 1, 2004, the number must have been valid for work or the work for which the permanent resident is seeking credit must have been performed while the person was temporarily in the United States and had immigration status as a businessperson or crewperson.

When Can a Green Card Holder Access Medicare?

LPRs who have been in the United States for five years are normally eligible to receive Medicare. This form of medical coverage is intended for people who are over the age of 65 or have certain qualifying disabilities. There are several different types of Medicare, including:

  • Part A, which covers major procedures such as hospitalizations or surgeries
  • Part B, which covers outpatient benefits such as doctor's office visits, lab work, X-rays, and so on
  • Part C, which combines components of Part A and B and adds coverage for vision, dental, and more, and
  • Part D, which covers prescription medications.

Americans or LPRs who have worked 40 credit hours do not need to pay for Medicare Part A. However, if you are an LPR who has lived in the U.S. for five years but has not worked long enough to qualify, you can purchase Medicare Part A coverage and pay a monthly premium (as of early 2024, a Medicare Part A premium is free to people who've paid into the system for approximately 10 years or more; and if not, cost either $278 or $505 per month, depending on how long you or your spouse worked and paid into the Medicare system).

Both citizens and LPRs need to pay for Medicare parts B, C, and D.

When Can a Green Card Holder Access Medicaid? (Full-Scope and Emergency)

Medicaid is a health coverage program for low-income children, families, elderly persons, and disabled persons. Each state runs a Medicaid program, though many give it a different name.

Two types of opportunities for medical care are offered under Medicaid: Emergency Medicaid and Full-Scope Medicaid. Permanent residents mostly qualify for Emergency Medicaid without exception, assuming they meet the general, non-immigration-related eligibility requirements.

To qualify for Full-Scope Medicaid, LPRs must, in most cases, have been in had green card status for at least five years. A handful of states also require 40 quarters of work before providing Full-Scope Medicaid benefits. Also, the "deeming rules" described above might apply.

To find out whether your state provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents who are under 21 or pregnant, contact your local, county, or state public benefits office. Your state also might provide LPRs certain medical benefits funded without Medicaid money.

Can Green Card Holders Use the ACA Health Insurance Marketplace?

LPRs are eligible to apply for coverage through the health insurance marketplace under the Affordable Care Act or ACA (also known as "Obamacare"). Depending on your income level, you might be able to receive a subsidy or reduced insurance rate on the marketplace.

Can Green Card Holders Access the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)?

CHIP provides health coverage to children living in families that cannot get Medicaid because their income is too high, but do not have enough money to pay for private insurance. To qualify for CHIP, LPRs must in most cases:

  • have held LPR status for five years, and be either
    • a child under 21 who lives in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents, or
    • pregnant and living in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents.

The "deeming rules" described above might apply. However, many states have taken advantage of an option in the CHIP program to provide CHIP assistance to "lawfully residing" children and pregnant woman regardless of their date of entry into the United States. Check with your state agency to see whether your state offers this benefit.

Can Green Card Holders Receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)?

TANF is a federal program that provides money to states to reduce poverty. Low-income families that qualify receive cash assistance, but must also participate in job training and other programs designed to eliminate dependence on cash assistance.

In most states, LPRs who have maintained their lawful resident status for 5 years can qualify for TANF, assuming they meet other program requirements. A handful of states require 40 quarters of work before providing TANF benefits.

Even if an LPR meets general eligibility requirements, however, it is possible that the "deeming rules" described above will prevent the person from receiving TANF.

Many states have programs that provide cash assistance to immigrants who are not eligible for TANF, although the benefit levels are sometimes lower, and other restrictions and time limits might apply.

Can Green Card Holders Receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Benefits?

SNAP is a federal program that provides money to states so that they can help people with limited income to purchase food. People who qualify for SNAP receive electronic debit cards for use in purchasing groceries (though many people still refer to this program as "food stamps").

Permanent residents under 18 years of age may qualify for SNAP benefits. In most cases, an LPR who is older than 18 will qualify for SNAP only after having credit for 40 quarters of work in the United States.

As with TANF, the "deeming rules" described above might result in ineligibility.

Some states have programs to supply food benefits instead of SNAP to LPRs who do not qualify for SNAP benefits.

Can Green Card Holders Qualify to Live in Federally Funded Public Housing or "Section 8" Housing?

Permanent residents are potentially eligible for federally funded public housing as well as "Section 8."

Federally funded public housing provides government-owned housing to low-income individuals, families, the disabled, and the elderly. Usually, federally funded public housing is owned or managed by a local government's "housing authority."

Section 8 is a voucher program that gives low-income individuals and families money with which to rent housing in the private market.

If there is one permanent resident in a household and other people living there who are not eligible for federal public housing or Section 8, the rent will probably be prorated so that the only person receiving the federal housing benefit is the LPR.

There are also other types of affordable housing (such as Low-Income Housing Tax Credit ("LIHTC" communities) that do not have any U.S. citizenship requirements, for which LPRs also qualify.

Expect the Public Benefits Agency to Verify LPR Status

Usually, a permanent resident can simply show a green card to prove the required immigration status. But the public benefits agency may also get in touch with U.S. immigration authorities to verify the applicant's immigration status.

When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) receives this sort of request to check on immigration status, it is not supposed to use the information to start removal (deportation) proceedings, except where the permanent resident has committed certain crimes.

However, DHS does not explicitly guarantee that it will not investigate an applicant who applies for public benefits. Therefore, if you have been charged with or convicted of any crime (even if you received "diversion" or other alternative sentencing programs and even if any convictions have been expunged or "cleaned" from your record) or you have had any other history that could put your LPR status at risk, you should talk to an immigration attorney before applying for public benefits.

Can Receiving Public Benefits Lead to Deportation?

The federal Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) states that "any alien who, within five years after the date of entry; has become a public charge from causes not affirmatively shown to have arisen since entry is deportable." (See I.N.A. § 237(a)(5).).

That sounds alarming, but in practice, whether a public charge determination can lead to deportation is complex. While deportation is technically possible, the test for deportability on the basis of a public charge determination is extremely strict, and deportation on this basis has been rare in the past, almost nonexistent. Basically, you risk being declared a public charge and having to face deportation only if ALL of the following occur or are true:

  • You received cash benefits or long-term institutional care from a government agency in the U.S. for reasons that existed before you entered the U.S.
  • You received cash benefits or long-term care less than five years after entering the U.S.
  • You or your U.S. sponsor have a legal debt to the government agency that provided the cash or long-term care (rare; most federal programs do not create a legal debt).
  • You or your sponsor received a demand for repayment from the government within five years of entering the U.S.
  • You or your sponsor refused to repay the benefits, and
  • The government filed a lawsuit against you and won in court.

As this test shows, merely receiving public benefits does NOT make someone eligible for deportation on the basis of being a public charge. Many public benefits, including non-cash benefits like food stamps, emergency assistance, and federal loans, do not even trigger a public charge analysis for either inadmissibility or deportability purposes.

Also, before DHS can deport you, it must prove that you received a demand for repayment, you refused to repay the amount you received in benefits, and you received a judgment against you in court for the receipt of benefits. This is extremely burdensome for DHS to prove and covers only a narrow set of circumstances. Moreover, many state aid agencies are reluctant to file lawsuits, for a variety of reasons. That is why deportation on public charge grounds is virtually nonexistent under the current system.

Getting Legal Help

Particularly if you are in deportation proceedings or have been ordered to appear for them and are not sure what to do, it is best to contact an experienced immigration attorney as soon as possible to discuss your potential options.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
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