Note: This article was last updated on 6/14/2021. People ask us this question a lot. Many folks believe that refugees, illegal immigrants, and immigrants are essentially all the same. However, the federal government doesn’t classify those groups the same way. It’s also good to know these groups definitely don’t all qualify for assistance from federal aid programs. So what non-citizen groups can qualify for SNAP, TANF, SSI, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Social Security benefits?
Let’s break it down.
How the Federal Government Defines Each Group
Group #1: Refugees
“Refugee” is a protected status sometimes granted to people outside their own countries who meet the U.S. government’s criteria. Refugees may be of special humanitarian concern to the U.S., because they’re fleeing violence or persecution. Refugees are generally people fleeing their country that fear serious harm or death if they return back home. Any refugee seeking admission at a United States port of entry or already in the country may apply for asylum.
Group #2: Immigrants
The Department of Homeland Security uses the term “lawful permanent resident” when referring to an immigrant. The government defines “immigrant” as a person admitted to the United States as a lawful resident. Legal immigrants may live within the country without having obtained U.S. citizenship.
Immigrants have no legal or constitutional rights to remain inside the U.S. once they’re here. But if the government renews visas for immigrants each time the previous ones expire, then they can lawfully stay. In return for temporary residence, immigrants owe “temporary allegiance” to the United States and must obey all U.S. laws.
Group #3: Illegal/Undocumented Aliens
This means any person who entered the United States without proper authorization, documents or inspection. Also called an alien, an illegal immigrant is anyone entering the U.S. illegally or overstaying their visa after legal entry. (In most cases, this means staying in the United States longer than 90 days on a tourism or business visa.)
This classification also applies to anyone who violates their travel visa’s terms or commits a crime after entering the U.S. An undocumented person can be deported.
Aid Programs Refugees & Immigrants May Qualify For
According to the Cato Institute, these groups can qualify for all entitlement (like Social Security benefits) and means-tested welfare programs:
- Naturalized citizens
- U.S.-born children with immigrant parents
In 2016, the U.S. federal government spent about $2.3 trillion on benefits for the poor and elderly. This amounted to 60% of federal outlays, and $800 billion went to means-tested welfare benefits (like Supplemental Security Income payments). This money is intended to help the poorest applicants who qualify, including lawful immigrants.
What’s the Difference Between “Means-Tested Benefits” and Entitlement Programs?
To qualify for means-tested benefits, each applicant must fall below a certain income level and have limited assets. Here are some that legal immigrants can apply for:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – must earn less than $1,350/month, be unable to work for at least one year and have no more than $2,000 in available assets to qualify
- Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) – household income must be no more than 254% of the federal poverty level to cover uninsured children ages 0-18
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – must have no more than $2,250 in countable resources ($3,500 if over age 60) and meet monthly income limits
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) – provides cash assistance to needy families with at least one dependent child younger than 19
- Medicaid – must meet the same income/asset limits as SSI in order to qualify
Entitlement programs make applicants meet eligibility requirements and “earn” their benefits. These programs include:
- Social Security benefits (retirement benefits) – paid for through FICA taxes in every paycheck that become available at full retirement age (early withdrawal allowed at 62)
- Social Security Disability Insurance benefits (SSDI) – essentially, these are Social Security benefits you may withdraw if you become too disabled to work for 12 months (or your condition’s terminal)
- Medicare coverage – you’ll become eligible for discounted health care after receiving SSDI for two years, or once you turn 65
Fast Facts About Vetting Immigrants and Refugees’ Eligibility for Various Benefits Programs
Here are a few fast facts about refugees, immigrants and benefits program eligibility, according to the Cato Institute report:
- Temporary migrants usually can’t qualify for means-tested benefits, such as SNAP and SSI.
- Migrants who are lawful permanent residents cannot qualify for means-tested benefits for at least five years.
- Illegal immigrants cannot qualify for entitlement programs (like Social Security benefits) or means-tested benefits (like SSI). The one exception is emergency medical care, like Medicaid.
- Immigrants have lower program use rates and get less benefit money than native-born Americans do.
How Many Refugees Does the United States Admit For Resettlement?
The UN Refugee Agency tracks resettlement numbers globally. United States refugee resettlement numbers fell significantly in 2018 compared to previous years:
How Many Undocumented Immigrants Get Deported from the United States Every Year?
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, alien deportation numbers for those same years show:
- 2014: 315,943 deportations
- 2015: 235,413 deportations
- 2016: 240,255 deportations
- 2017: 226,119 deportations
- 2018: 256,086 deportations
- 2019: 267,258 deportations
- 2020: 185,884 deportations
How Much Revenue Do Refugees Generate for the United States?
Trump recently ordered Health and Human Services to conduct a study about refugee resources and costs. The completed HHS study found refugees generated $63 billion more in revenue than they cost the federal government. For a decade, refugees paid more in taxes than they collected in government benefits, according to the July 2017 report.
HHS data shows that refugees “contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government” from 2005-2014.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
Not sure if you’re eligible for Social Security benefits? Talk to an expert before you apply! We can match you with an experienced lawyer in your area who’ll answer your claim questions for free. It costs nothing to get professional help filing your SSD application, and you’ll avoid basic mistakes filling out the forms. If you already got a denial letter from the SSA, a lawyer may still help you win at your appeals hearing. The SSA has lawyers fighting to deny you benefits — shouldn’t you have someone fighting for you, too?
If a lawyer helps you win benefits, you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.
Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free disability benefits evaluation now.
Laura Schaefer is the author of The Teashop Girls, The Secret Ingredient, and Littler Women: A Modern Retelling. She is also an active co-author or ghostwriter of several nonfiction books on personal and business development. Laura currently lives in Windermere, Florida with her husband and daughter and works with clients all over the world. Visit her online at lauraschaeferwriter.com and linkedin.com.