Ruth Ellen Wasem
Specialist in Immigration Policy
Federal law bars aliens residing without authorization in the United States from most federal benefits; however, there is a widely held perception that many unauthorized aliens obtain such benefits. The degree to which unauthorized resident aliens should be accorded certain rights and privileges as a result of their residence in the United States, along with the duties owed by such aliens given their presence, remains the subject of debate in Congress. This report focuses on the policy and legislative debate surrounding unauthorized aliens’ access to federal benefits.
Except for a narrow set of specified emergency services and programs, unauthorized aliens are not eligible for federal public benefits. The law (§401(c) of P.L. 104-193) defines federal public benefit as
any grant, contract, loan, professional license, or commercial license provided by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States; and any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments or assistance are provided to an individual, household, or family eligibility unit by an agency of the United States or by appropriated funds of the United States.
The actual number of unauthorized aliens in the United States is unknown. Researchers at the Pew Hispanic Center estimate that there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States in March 2010. Calculations by Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeffrey Passel based on the 2008 March Current Population Survey (CPS) estimated that the number of persons living in families in which the head of the household or the spouse was an unauthorized alien was 16.6 million. There were 8.8 million unauthorized families, which he defines as a family unit or solo individual in which the head or spouse is unauthorized. A noteworthy portion of the households headed by unauthorized aliens are likely to have U.S. citizen children, as well as spouses who may be legal permanent residents (LPRs), and are referred to as “mixed status” families. The number of U.S. citizen children in “mixed status” families has grown from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4.5 million in 2010. Passel estimates that one in three children who have a parent who is unauthorized is also considered poor according to the federal poverty rate.
Although the law appears straightforward, the policy on unauthorized aliens’ access to federal benefits is peppered with ongoing controversies and debates. Some center on demographic issues (e.g., how to treat mixed-immigration status families). Others explore unintended consequences, most notably when tightening up the identification requirements results in denying benefits to U.S. citizens. Still others are debates about how broadly the clause “federal public benefit” should be implemented, particularly regarding tax credits and refunds.
Date of Report: December 9, 2011
Number of Pages: 25
Order Number: RL34500
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