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 may consider applying for public benefits (government financial or other assistance). However, you probably have a lot of questions, such as:

  • Do I qualify for any public benefits?

  • Will receiving public benefits put me at risk of losing my permanent resident status, being deported, or becoming ineligible for U.S. citizenship?

We'll answer the first question below, and the second in the article, "Receiving Public Benefits + Travel = Potential Inadmissibility for a Green Card Holder."

Public Benefits Eligibility for Immigrants

The types of public benefits a permanent resident can receive depends, naturally, on the eligibility requirements of the specific program. Benefit amounts vary depending on the federal, state, or countyproviding the benefit, as well as factors such as your family size. To find out whether you meet the eligibility requirements for a public benefit, you'll need to seek information from your 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 the benefit programs discussed in this article may have different names in the state or county where you live. For example, what the federal government calls "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)" is called “CalWORKs” in California.

In addition, you should know that some counties and states have public benefits programs that are specifically intended for immigrants who cannot qualify for federal public benefit programs. For example, in California some immigrants who do not qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of their immigration status can receive assistance through the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI).

Factors Considered in Assessing a Permanent Resident's Eligibility for Benefits

The benefits that a lawful permanent resident (LPR) can receive will depend 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

  • 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 permanent resident can receive public benefits.

In this article, we will assume that the permanent resident received this 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 (an often more generous) rules apply:

  • asylee

  • refugee

  • withholding of removal recipient

  • Cuban/Haitian

  • Amerasian

  • victim of trafficking

  • Iraqi or Afghan special immigrant

  • abused spouse or child of a permanent resident or U.S. citizen

  • Native American who was born outside of the U.S.

  • veteran

  • active duty member of the military

  • spouse of a member of the military

  • surviving, unremarried spouse of a deceased member of the military, or

  • surviving child of a deceased member of the military.

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 cannot apply for SSI benefits until they have lived in the U.S. for five years. After five years in the U.S., a permanent resident will qualify for SSI only if he or she has credit for 40 "quarters" of work. (“Quarters” is a legal term that means a three-month period in which you earn a certain amount of money. If you work all year, you’ll be credited for four quarters that year, so it will take at least 10 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.

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, permanent residents who have maintained their lawful resident status for five 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 may be lower, and other restrictions and time limits may apply.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP is a federal program that provides money to states so that they can help people with limited income purchase food. People who qualify for SNAP receive electronic debit cards that they can use to purchase groceries.

Permanent residents who are under 18 years of age may qualify for SNAP benefits. In most cases, a permanent resident who is older than 18 will qualify for SNAP only if he or she has credit for 40 quarters of work.

As with TANF, the “deeming rules” described above may result in ineligibility.

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

Medicaid (Full-Scope and Emergency)

Medicaid is a health coverage program for low-income individuals, children, families, elderly, and the disabled. 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 generally qualify for Emergency Medicaid without exception, assuming they meet the general, non-immigration-related eligibility requirements.

To qualify for Full-Scope Medicaid, permanent residents must, in most cases, have been a permanent resident for five years. A handful of states require 40 quarters of work before providing Full-Scope Medicaid benefits.

Also, the “deeming rules” described above may 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 may provide green card holders certain medical benefits funded without Medicaid money.

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, permanent residents must:

  • have been a permanent resident for five years, and

  • be a child under 21 AND live in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents, or

  • be pregnant AND live in a state that provides Full-Scope Medicaid to permanent residents

The “deeming rules” described above may apply.

Medicare (Hospitalization/Free and Buy-In)

There are two types of Medicare: Hospitalization/Free and Buy-in.

Hospitalization/free ("Part A") Medicare provides health benefits to people who have worked in the U.S. and paid Social Security taxes long enough and are:

  • 65 years or older

  • Disabled, or

  • Facing permanent kidney failure

Persons who have not worked long enough may qualify for the “buy-in” option.

Hospitalization/Free Medicare is generally available to all U.S. permanent residents, assuming they meet the other general, non-immigration-related eligibility requirements.

Buy-in Medicare is available to permanent residents only if they have held that status for at least five years.

Federally Funded Public Housing and “Section 8” Housing

Section 8 is a voucher program that gives low-income individuals and families money so that they can rent housing in the private market. Federally funded public housing provides government-owned housing to low-income individuals, families, the disabled, and the elderly. Usually, the federally funded public housing is owned or managed by a local government's “housing authority.”

Permanent residents are generally eligible for federally funded public housing and “Section 8.”

If there is one permanent resident in the household and other people living in the home 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 permanent resident.

Social Security Benefits

Permanent residents are generally eligible for Social Security, which provides retirement payments based on work and earnings history. 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 LPR was temporarily in the U.S. and had status as a businessperson or crewman.

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 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, DHS is not supposed to use the information to start removal (deportation) proceedings – except where the permanent resident has committed certain crimes.

If you have been charged with or convicted of any crimes (even if you received “diversion” or other alternative sentencing programs and even if any convictions have been expunged or “cleaned” from your record) you should, therefore, talk to an attorney before applying for public benefits.

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