One of the loudest arguments against immigration is the notion that immigrants put pressure on the social welfare programs of the United States. The notion being that there is much need for US citizens and thus immigrants should not participate in tax-funded social welfare subsidies and programs. There are many social welfare programs, from the local-level on up to the federal government. Each of them targets a specific need or population. All of the them are funded through taxes. The discussion about immigrants and welfare abuse, like everything related to immigration, is not as simple as clearly denying access to welfare programs to immigrants. As diverse as the support programs are, so are the populations receiving them, including the immigrant population. Making the discussion even more difficult is the tendency to oversimplify the immigrant population into one group of people.

Nationalists tend to see immigrants as one cluster. The undocumented, the documented and the children of immigrants comprises the immigrant population, in their eyes. This cluster contains legal immigrants under various statuses, some with many years of contributing to the US society, and the tax base. The cluster also contains children and siblings of immigrants that are US citizens, either by birth or by naturalization. The cluster, obviously, also contains undocumented immigrants.

What the percentage is between the different groups is something I do not know because, although improperly included in the debate, are the US citizen children of immigrants. I realize that there are many nationalists, including Donald Trump, that argue that birthright citizenship is either improper or should be eradicated. However, since many of those arguing against immigration base their argument on the “rule of law,” for this discussion, we are going to have to agree that US citizens, either by birth or by naturalization will be excluded in today’s examination of the issue. If the reader believes that birthright citizenship should be eradicated, or that it is wrong, it remains irrelevant until the law is changed. That is also true for naturalized citizens. For today’s piece, I am going to focus on the undocumented immigrant and those, like me, who are legal residents of the United States, but are not US citizens.

Obviously the question is, are legal and undocumented immigrants abusing the welfare system?

There are many of you that will point to anecdotal evidence and exhaustive reports reporting the cost to the taxpayers as a result of immigrants. On the other side of that argument, I can produce reports that paint a different picture altogether. Around and around we will go with neither side conceding. So, let us try something different today and let us simplify the debate.

Proponents of the wall invariably always point to the “rule of law.”

Therefore, let us focus on the “rule of law” when it comes to the usage of welfare systems. It is impossible for me to analyze all of the different social welfare programs that exists in the US. I just do not have the resources to do so. What I am going to do today is focus on the largest and better known ones. The question I am looking to answer is what are the eligibility requirements to receive the benefit; namely are documented and legal residents allowed to access to the programs.

I am not going to look into healthcare programs in too much detail because, although, arguably they are the most tasking to the taxpayers, the healthcare assistance programs are currently in flux because of the Affordable Healthcare Act, better known as ObamaCare. Some of you will point to this as a reason why my conclusion is flawed. However, the fact remains that the healthcare system is in flux, and as such we cannot draw any definite conclusions about its future and its use by immigrants.

There is also the issue of public education. I am tabling this issue for a much more in depth article for a future date. Now, let us look at the following social welfare programs and see what the rules, or laws are for their use by immigrants. Remember that we are focused on two groups of immigrants – the undocumented and the legal resident, like me, who are not US citizens.

Child Nutrition Programs

There are numerous child nutrition programs both at the federal and state levels. I did not exhaustively research all of them. They range from adult, senior and child nutritional support. However, nutritional support for children is likely the most expensive for the taxpayers. Most of these are handled through the United States Department of Agriculture through the various school systems.

According to the July 2015 Eligibility Manual for School Meals from the USDA, the “United States citizenship or immigration status is not a condition of eligibility for free and reduced” school meals.

Earned Income Tax Credit

The Earned Income Tax Credit is a “refundable tax credit” benefit for low-income earners with children. It is supposed to encourage individuals to work. The credit is designed to lower the burden of Social Security and Medicaid taxes on those earning poverty-level wages. Although the idea is for workers to receive a credit towards the income taxes they paid from their jobs, there are occasions where the money the federal government refunds is greater than the taxes that were paid.

However, undocumented immigrants do not qualify, as a matter of law.

Resident aliens who are not US citizens may qualify, depending on income levels, only if they have been a legal resident for the entire tax year. Married couples, where one is a legal resident that has not met the year requirement, do not qualify for that tax year.

Feeding Programs (WIC)

The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture. This program provides nutritional benefits and healthcare referrals for low-income pregnant or postpartum women and infants and children. The WIC program is available based on income guidelines and does not have any restrictions on immigrants, legal or undocumented.

Food Stamps (SNAP)

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is a nutritional assistance for low-income individuals. It is colloquially known as “food stamps”. This program is also run by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In order for legal, non-US citizens to qualify for SNAP, they must have had held a job long enough to receive “40 quarters of work.” There are various exceptions to this requirement. Included in the exceptions are minors, or under 18 years of age, refugees, victims of criminal activities, among others.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for SNAP.

Medicaid and CHIP

Undocumented immigrants are not covered under federal guidelines, except for “limited emergency services.”

In regards to legal residents, generally they must have been a legal resident for a minimum of five years before they can qualify. There are exceptions for refugees and others.


To be eligible for Medicare, an immigrant must be legally present in the United States. Legal residents that are not US citizens must have been in the US for at least five years and must have held a job, paying into the system, for at least ten years. Obviously, like all US citizens, they must be older than 65 years of age.

Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for Medicare.


Legal residents that are not US citizens are eligible to purchase health coverage through ObamaCare.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for coverage, although they may be covered through the coverage of a US citizen or legal resident family member.

Public Housing

Assistance for low income housing in the United States is governed by local, state and federal agencies. Most, if not all, of the low-income programs offering subsidized housing is under the auspices of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD, also funds and manages the funding for the majority of the programs. Section 8 is one of the largest and better known programs. It offers vouchers to low-income families in order to subsidize their housing needs.

HUD limits access to its programs to US citizens and certain legal residents of the United States. For legal residents, the requirements are generally being in the country legally for at least five years. Undocumented immigrants are excluded from its programs.

Social Security

As you likely know, social security administers disability and retirement benefits. Each of the programs have different eligibility requirements. After 1996, only legal residents of the United States are eligible for social security programs. In most cases, the immigrant must wait five years before they become eligible and must have at least 40 qualifying quarters of work.

It is important to note that although the Social Security Administration issues social security cards to immigrants, even those on temporary visitor visas, under certain conditions, the social security card, in and on itself does not convey social security benefits.
Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for Social Security services.

As you can clearly see, except for food programs intended for children, school meals and WIC, welfare benefits exclude undocumented immigrants. The other programs that I shared with you require that the legal immigrants, for the most part, must have been legally in the country for a minimum of five years before they become eligible. Medicare and Social security requires that immigrants contribute towards the system before they become eligible.

Now we get to the crux of the issue. Many of those arguing against immigration routinely point to the “rule of law.” The law is clear, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for the majority of the welfare programs. Additionally, those of us that are legal immigrants, but not US citizens, do not qualify for welfare services during the first five years of being legally in the country. In some cases, like social security, we must earn the necessary work credits to qualify for the service.

Public Charge

There is an additional legal impediment that is seldom discussed.

It is a provision of the US immigration laws that is known as “public charge.”

Under public charge stipulation, any immigrant that “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge” is ineligible to legally enter the United States, or acquire the legal status to live in the country. This has been the legal standard for over a 100 years.

Obviously, a background check is required during the application process for lawful status in the United States. Part of the process is to see if the applicant has ever received a public benefit. Since the majority of the welfare programs require that a recipient is legally present in the US, then lying is a disqualifying factor. Additionally, since a requirement to become a legal resident is that the applicant is unlikely to become a “public charge,” then any previous use of a welfare program is likely to disqualify the applicant. This is also true for family members of the applicant, if they are relying on the family member as part of the application process.

The “rule of law” clearly states that undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most welfare programs. Legal residents are required to meet certain conditions before they become eligible for a welfare program. If, in fact, immigrants are putting undo pressure on the welfare system, then does it not stand to reason that the real problem lies on the inability of US citizens to follow the “rule of law” when administering the programs and/or on the US government for not enforcing the “rule of law” on the programs?

In other words, are the wrong people being blamed?

I realize that the argument will continue to be that the US build a wall to keep immigrants out in order to get control of the abuse. However, will this really solve the problem if the problem lies, not on the immigrants, but on the government’s inability to ensure that the “rule of law” is followed across its many programs?

I submit to you that immigrants are just the scapegoats to fundamental problems that no one wants to truly address and that building a wall will do nothing to rectify them.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

4 replies on “Immigrants and Social Welfare Programs”

  1. The “rule of law” apparently is about Convience. While I agree that children born in the U.S. are citizens, it is abused. I don’t recall exactly when, approx 2 yrs ago there was a story about a Mexican citizen that boasted about crossing the border just before giving birth. And would continue to do so with every pregnancy. Many of Mexico’s citizens laugh and say “what not”, son pendegos los gringos.

    We are expected to follow the rule of law but others are not? Entering most countries without documentation is a violation, period.

    The border is not going to be closed, that’s liberal spin, the legal entry points will always be open. The border will or should be protected from those that want to enter without documentation. Just like most countries.

    Why not restart the Bracero program ? That would be the simple solution for those seeking work, protect the workers, stop the violation of the Immigration laws.

    I agree that mass deportation is a nightmare and most likely ineffective plus hurt the economy. However shouldnt the people be required to obey the “rule of law” and register ? Patrol the border aggressively on both sides until there is reasonable accountability of who and why people snuck into the U.S.

    Are the benefit programs being abused, no doubt. Be at the border on school days, park at WIC centers, etc. Mexican plates are seen dropping off children at schools or getting assistance. The slap in the face is that the receiptients drive expensive vehicles and are well dressed. Now is there abuse by U.S. Citizens, obviously yes.

    Cut the gravy train and see the reduction in applying for assistance. When is Mexico going to assume responsibility for its citizens? Why is it US responsibility to take care of everyone while our own do without.

    1. If there were children of foreign nationals residing here, e.g., Germans at Ft. Bliss, they can enroll their kids in the public schools. The schools are here to educate children of the populace residing here. In El Paso, this is abused because everyone in Juarez has a relative here to provide a local address. I don’t know how you police something like this. It is a drawback of being a border town.

  2. Hire a couple of investigators and offer good financial incentives. The people would have to stay in El Paso. I say people because there is plenty of fraud in all areas.

    While the investigators are at it, investigate the U.S. citizens. This could be a very lucative business. We know the local politicians would never upset their voters.

  3. If we limited birthright citizenship to children of those legally documented to reside in the US, required driver’s licenses or a state ID listing current address to register your kids in school and cut off all access to public assistance without proof of legal residency or citizenship in the US consistent with benefits illegibility, plus requires e verify on all employment, I think we’d solve a lot of these issues. But right now folks there are a lot of folks gaming our systems. And btw, the school system gets government funding for every student coming from Ft. Bliss to offset the fact they don’t pay property tax. No such payment for kids from Juarez. Personally, I think we should offer them the ability to pay tuition to attend and prosecute anyone that tried to enroll their kids who lived in Juarez but didn’t take that option.

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