Over the last 25 years, the use of public benefits by immigrants—especially undocumented immigrants—has served as a discussion point in the national debate over immigration. This issue gained national prominence in 1994 when voters in California approved Proposition 187, a state ballot initiative that prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing nonemergency health care, public education, and other state services. While subsequent legislation overturned the initiative, Proposition 187 served as a precursor to the 1996 congressional reforms of federal welfare and immigration laws that restrict non-citizens’ access to federal benefits. These laws allow states to extend or restrict benefits for non-citizens, establishing another component to the framework that regulates non-citizen access to these services. More recently, the Trump administration has proposed a new regulation that would make it harder for individuals who have used public benefits to access a visa or green card by changing the process for determining whether this use makes them ineligible to move to the United States.
Researchers have conducted a range of studies on the use of public benefits by immigrants and their families. The academic literature on this topic is varied, often reflecting the ideological and methodological approaches of their authors. For instance, researchers affiliated with the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies publish studies that show immigrant-headed households use significantly more public benefits than native-born Americans. Researchers affiliated with more pro-immigration groups, such as the Cato Institute, produce studies that show immigrants use these benefits at lower rates.
This literature review attempts to discern where the preponderance of research lies on immigrant use of public benefits. In summary, the majority of research reviewed shows that individual immigrants use public benefits at lower rates and at lower portions than native-born Americans. Households with immigrant parents and U.S. citizen children may use benefits at higher rates than other household types, however. Immigrants have a fiscal impact on these programs, but the types of taxes and benefits authors include in their studies determine whether this effect is positive or negative. Finally, concerns about immigration enforcement may lead fewer immigrants or individuals with immigrant backgrounds to use or to register for
these services, even when they are legally permitted to do so, suggesting that an individual’s circumstances—not laws regulating access to public benefits—may be the key factor that dictates their use of public benefits.