What should I know about public benefits for immigrants?

Authored By: GeorgiaLegalAid.org
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Benefits for immigrants

Public benefits available to immigrants


Can I get public benefits if I am an immigrant?

U.S. citizenship is not an absolute requirement to get most federal public benefits. Depending on your immigration status and how long you’ve lived in the country, you may be eligible for some federal benefits. Even if you are undocumented, you may still be able to get certain federal benefits. 


Public benefits for immigrants legally in the U.S. 

If you have a “qualified immigrant status,” you are eligible to apply for most federal benefits after you have met certain requirements. Qualified immigrants include: 

  • lawful permanent residents (green card holders),

  • refugees, people granted asylum or withholding of deportation/removal, and conditional entrants,

  • people granted parole by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a period of at least one year,

  • Cuban and Haitian entrants,

  • children, spouses, and parents of children who survived abuse at the hands of their parent or spouse who is also a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (LPR). These survivors must have a pending or approved Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petition.

  • certain survivors of trafficking.


There is often a waiting period and/or additional requirements before qualified immigrants can apply for public benefits. Even after you are allowed to apply, you must still meet the benefit requirements in order to be eligible for that benefit.


If you are a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), after five years, you can apply for:


Some qualified immigrants do not have to wait five years to apply for benefits. For example, refugees, asylees, or LPRs who used to be refugees or asylees don’t have to wait 5 years.


You are able to apply for Social Security benefits for retirement and disability after you have completed 40 quarters of work (10 years).  Work done by your deceased spouse, or, if you are a minor, your deceased parent may also count. Adults must be retired or disabled to qualify for Social Security.


Temporary visa holders are not eligible for federal benefits. This includes:

  • People with temporary protected status, and 

  • People with non-immigrant visas, like:

    • Worker visas and

    • Student visas.


Public benefits for undocumented immigrants

If you are an undocumented immigrant, you may still be entitled to benefits that are necessary to protect life or guarantee safety. These benefits include:

  • Emergency medical treatment under Medicaid if you meet the other eligibility requirements,

  • Immunizations and testing for and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases,

  • Access to healthcare and nutrition programs under the Special Supplemental Nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC),

  • Free public education for grades K-12,

  • Federally subsidized school lunch and school breakfast programs.

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Can a U.S. citizen child with undocumented parents get federal benefits?

A child who is a U.S. citizen is eligible for benefits if they meet the requirements even if their parents are not U.S. citizens.

What is the Public Charge and what does it mean for benefits?

The public charge rule is used by immigration officials to help decide who can be admitted to the U.S. and who can get lawful permanent residency status (a green card). The public charge rule only applies to those applying for admission or a green card based on a petition filed by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.


The public charge rule does not apply to:

  • Refugees

  • Asylum applicants

  • Refugees and asylees applying for adjustment to permanent resident status

  • Amerasian Immigrants (for their initial admission)

  • Individuals granted relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA)

  • Individuals granted relief under the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act (NACARA)

  • Individuals granted relief under the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA)

  • Individuals applying for a T Visa

  • Individuals applying for a U Visa

  • Individuals who possess a T visa and are trying to become a permanent resident (get a Green Card)

  • Individuals who possess a U visa and are trying to become a permanent resident (get a Green Card)

  • Applicants for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

  • Certain applicants under the LIFE Act Provisions


The public charge rule is not used to decide citizenship. If you are already a lawful permanent resident, the public charge rule does not apply to you after five years, unless you have left the U.S. for more than six months. However, the public charge rule may still apply if you are trying to sponsor a family member to come to the U.S. Contact an immigration lawyer if you have questions.


If an immigration official decides you are likely to become a public charge, they can deny you admission or a green card. One factor in deciding if you are likely to become a public charge is if you get one or more public benefits. 


However, most of these benefits are only available to lawful permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for more than five years.


The public charge rule is complicated and it is unclear exactly how it will be applied. If you are concerned about how it might affect you, contact an immigration attorney. 

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Last Review and Update: Feb 02, 2022
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