Statement by
Wade F. Horn, PH.D
Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Benefits to Immigrants under TANF

The Committee on Ways and Means
U.S. House of Representatives

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Rangel, and members of the committee, I am pleased to appear before you today to discuss the policy regarding provision of benefits to immigrants under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

The TANF program is a $16.5 billion block grant program to provide temporary assistance to those in need and to help move recipients to work. Since the enactment of the original welfare reform law in 1996, welfare rolls for families have declined by 57 percent. The most recent caseload numbers show that 1,870,039 families remain on the TANF rolls. In fact, there are fewer families on welfare than at any time since 1969.

It is worth noting that the immigrant eligibility restrictions are not part of the TANF law or unique to the TANF program. Rather, the restrictions are free-standing provisions that cover the eligibility of non-citizens for a public benefit, and were originally enacted via title IV of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) and subsequent amendments. The statutory provisions for the TANF program simply refer to these “special rules relating to the treatment of certain aliens.”

Currently the statute limits eligibility for Federal TANF welfare benefits to a select group of legal immigrants. These “qualified” immigrants consist of: lawful permanent residents, asylees, refugees, aliens paroled into the United States for at least one year, aliens whose deportations are being withheld, aliens granted conditional entry, Cuban/Haitian entrants, and aliens who (or whose children or parents) have been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty in the U.S. by a member of their household. Victims of severe forms of trafficking and certain family members also are eligible to the same extent as refugees. Thus, the law does not permit States to provide Federal TANF assistance to all non-citizens, even if the non-citizen otherwise meets the State’s TANF program eligibility requirements. States must verify that the applicant or recipient of a Federal TANF welfare benefit has the necessary qualified immigration status to ensure eligibility for the benefit.

Under PRWORA, however, most legal immigrants entering the country on or after August 22, 1996 are barred for their first five years as a “qualified” alien from receiving any Federal TANF means-tested welfare benefit. The following qualified aliens are exempt from the 5-year bar: refugees, asylees, an alien whose deportation is being withheld, Cuban/Haitian entrants, Amerasians, and veterans, members of the military on active duty, and their spouses and unmarried dependent children.

Legal immigrants who are eligible to receive Federal TANF assistance under these statutory provisions comprise a very small portion of the TANF population. Our most recent data, for FY 2004, show that eligible “qualified” immigrants make up about 2.1 percent (100,800) of the total recipient population of approximately 4.8 million individuals.

Moreover, for lawful permanent residents who immigrated through a family member or through employment with a close relative or for a firm in which the relative owns at least 5 percent, the sponsor must sign a legally enforceable Affidavit of Support. If the sponsored lawful permanent resident applies to receive a Federal means-tested TANF welfare benefit after expiration of the 5-year bar, then the State must consider, or “deem” the income and resources of the sponsor and sponsor’s spouse available to the lawful permanent resident when determining eligibility for and payment of the benefit. This deeming requirement lasts until the sponsored immigrant becomes a citizen or has 10 years (40 qualifying quarters) of work covered by the Social Security Administration. Under most circumstances this requirement would result in a determination of ineligibility for TANF benefits.

In signing the Affidavit, the sponsor agrees to assume liability for the non-reimbursed cost of any Federal means-tested TANF welfare benefit that the sponsored lawful permanent resident actually receives. In some situations, the family may still be eligible to receive a TANF benefit. This is because each State may formulate its own methodology, including any applicable disregards, for determining the amount of income and resources of the sponsor and the sponsor’s spouse to deem to the sponsored lawful permanent resident. Thus, if the sponsored individual receives a Federal means-tested TANF welfare benefit, the TANF agency may seek reimbursement from the sponsor by following the procedural requirements given in the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ regulations.

States can assist aliens who are not lawfully present in the U.S. (undocumented aliens) in two very limited ways. First, States may use their Federal or State funds to help with the cost of providing any non-citizen with an emergency non-cash benefit necessary for the protection of life or safety. Examples of non-cash benefits include soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless and victims of domestic violence, child protective services, and crisis counseling. Second, States may use their own State funds to provide a particular welfare benefit only if the State has enacted a law after August 22, 1996 that allows for such eligibility. To my knowledge, no State has passed such a law.

However, certain parents of children born in the U.S., including both legal immigrants who have not satisfied their five-year waiting period and undocumented aliens, can and do apply for TANF assistance on behalf of their U.S. citizen children. Because the child is a U.S. citizen, the child may receive Federal TANF benefits to the same extent as any other U.S. citizen. In fiscal year 2004, a national total of 426,098 families were classified as child-only assistance cases with a parent in the household, meaning that only the needy child, and not the parent, received assistance. About 152,000 or 35.6% of these cases included parents of unknown citizenship or alien status. The parents or caretakers of these children may be legal but unqualified immigrants, qualified immigrants subject to the 5-year bar on receipt of Federal TANF assistance, or undocumented aliens. Because the parent or other caretaker relative is neither an applicant nor a recipient, the State is not required to verify his/her citizenship or immigration status.

Of course, states may use their own funds to provide State-funded TANF assistance to an immigrant family member who is subject to the 5-year bar. So, for example, if a legal immigrant subject to this bar gave birth in the United States, then the State could provide assistance for the U.S. citizen child using Federal TANF funds and provide the mother’s share of assistance using State funds.

In closing, I appreciate the committee’s interest in this topic. I hope my testimony clarified the treatment of legal immigrants and undocumented aliens under the TANF program. I would be happy to answer any questions.

Last Revised: July 26, 2006