By Esther Reyes
Everyone deserves the right to resources and opportunities they need to thrive. In the United States, millions of lawfully present immigrants cannot access critical resources because they face arbitrary eligibility restrictions on federal health, housing, nutrition, and income support programs. We have the chance to encourage Congress members to eliminate those barriers and restore critical healthcare and social services for immigrant families.
These eligibility restrictions have been in place since 1996, when Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). Among other barriers, this law instated a five-year waiting period for lawful permanent residents and other “qualified” immigrants to access critical benefits such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Other authorized immigrants, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and those covered under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) are entirely ineligible for most federal benefits.
These restrictions created a lasting legacy of exclusion and further codified racism in our social support system. This exclusion led to higher levels of food insecurity, poverty, and uninsured rates among immigrants. More than 25 percent of lawfully present immigrants, for example, are uninsured compared to 9 percent of citizens. Immigrant families also experience higher levels of food insecurity and poverty than non-immigrant families.
The Impact on Children
When families lack the support they need, children suffer. The five-year waiting period applies to many lawfully present immigrant children, barring them from accessing basic services like health coverage during a critical time in their development. In 2020, nearly one in five lawfully present immigrant children were uninsured. Citizen children with immigrant parents are also impacted by these restrictions. Even when eligible, children are less likely to be enrolled in benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid if their caregivers are ineligible for those benefits. In fact, citizen children with at least one non-citizen parent are more than twice as likely to be uninsured than children with no immigrant parents.
The effects of PRWORA have been compounded by anti-immigrant policies and racist rhetoric meant to instill fear among immigrant families and communities. Most recently, the Trump-era public charge rule led to a significant drop in enrollment in benefit programs among eligible immigrants and left a lasting chilling effect that has kept immigrant families from enrolling their eligible children in public programs.
CDF-Texas has joined partners across the state to dispel this chilling effect and get accurate information to families about public benefits. You can learn more and find resources here.
LIFTing the BAR
Representatives Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) introduced the LIFT the BAR Act of 2021 on September 10, 2021. The LIFT the BAR Act would restore access to public programs for lawfully present immigrants by removing the arbitrary five-year waiting period and other restrictions to access federal public benefits. The bill’s crucial provisions would:
- RESTORE ELIGIBILITY: restore access to federal public benefits for lawfully present immigrants, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, individuals granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and other federally authorized non-citizens residing in the United States.
- LIFT THE BAR: remove the five-year bar in Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI).
- REMOVE ARBITRARY BARRIERS: ensure that immigrants with sponsors have access to services based on the income and resources that are actually available to them; removes state authority to impose additional restrictions on qualified immigrants; and restores flexibility for states and localities to provide benefits to immigrants with their own funds.
In Texas, more than 210,000 children are affected by the five-year-bar. And while lawfully present children and pregnant women in Texas can access Medicaid and CHIP during the five-year waiting period, Texas does not provide food assistance for lawfully present adult immigrants. Research shows that a child’s healthy development is largely dependent on the well-being of their caregivers. Providing access to food assistance and other critical benefits helps caregivers and parents take better care of themselves and their children.
In January 2022, the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign released a poll finding that 74 percent of Americans support expanding safety net access for currently excluded immigrants. It is past time to take the first step towards repealing PRWORA and rectifying the lasting legacy of exclusion.
If your member of Congress is already cosponsoring the LIFT the BAR Act, please thank them using the tweet below. You can find a current list of LIFT the BAR Act cosponsors HERE.
Thanks, @MEMBEROFCONGRESS, for cosponsoring the LIFT the BAR Act to restore critical healthcare and social services for immigrant families. To #ProtectFamilies, your colleagues in Congress must join you and #LIFTtheBAR. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5227/cosponsors
New @BSPresearch poll finds ¾ of Americans back restoring safety net access for immigrant families. https://protectingimmigrantfamilies.org/poll @MEMBEROFCONGRESS, it’s time to pass @RepJayapal’s bill to #LIFTtheBAR and #ProtectFamilies.
The Biden Administration has ended Trump’s racist public charge policy. But the “five-year bar” has been denying immigrant families of color critical health care & social services for 25 years. To #ProtectFamilies, Congress must #LIFTtheBAR. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5227/cosponsors
Director of Immigration Policy & Advocacy, Children’s Defense Fund – Texas