Alien Status Restrictions on Eligibility for Federally Funded Assistance Programs


Most restrictions on an alien’s eligibility for federally funded assistance programs are imposed by alien status classifications. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) made several important changes in the eligibility of aliens for numerous federal programs. This Article explores these changes, placing them in the context of existing eligibility rules. An overview of the current restrictions on alien eligibility for federally funded assistance programs and a detailed explanation of eligibility for selected programs will be presented to ascertain whether they serve purported objectives and how they affect other societal interests.

This Article begins with a description of the various immigration statuses so the reader can better understand the extent and impact of restrictions on assistance eligibility based on alien status. Included is a description of the new alien statuses created by IRCA. An overview of IRCA’s impact on eligibility for assistance programs follows. The current post-IRCA eligibility criteria of selected major benefits programs are then discussed in detail. Included are the major antipoverty federal financial assistance programs – Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – which respectively provide cash payments for basic maintenance costs such as food, shelter, and clothing to needy eligible families with dependent children (AFDC) and the needy elderly, disabled and blind (SSI). Also included are the major in-kind programs – Medicaid, which reimburses health care providers for the services provided to persons eligible for Medicaid, the federal food stamp program through which individuals are provided with vouchers that can be exchanged for basic food products, and public and assisted housing programs, which provide a variety of subsidized housing programs for low-income families, the elderly and the handicapped. This Article also discusses restrictions on alien access to legal services, although not usually considered a form of public assistance, because of the severity and impact of these restrictions. These programs are divided into two major categories: programs that restrict alien access to assistance programs by reference to specific immigration classifications and programs that utilize the more general criterion, “permanently residing in the United States under color of law.” Further, this Article analyzes the case law interpreting the “permanently residing in the United States under color of law” criterion.

The totality of federal restrictions on eligibility for federally funded assistance programs is then analyzed. This Article concludes that these restrictions create a confusing and complex system of eligibility which lack a consistent underlying rationale. The restrictions do not serve the two purported rationales of limiting assistance to aliens whose residence is sanctioned by federal immigration law, policy or practice or avoiding undue burdens on states or localities. Further, the restrictions undermine other important societal interests including the preservation of citizens’ rights, the protection of the community, and our society’s stake in being just and humane.

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