Debunking Myths About Immigrants and Public Benefits

A friend recently forwarded me a ridiculously inaccurate e-mail that is being forwarded across the country. The e-mail fuels anti-immigrant hysteria by claiming that immigrants and refugees are enjoying better access to public benefits than U.S. citizens.  Here is the text of the e-mail:

If an immigrant is over 65 they can apply for SSI and Medicaid and get more than my mom (in her 80’s) gets for Social Security, and she worked from 1944 till 2004, only getting $791 per month because she was born before 1924 and there is a ‘catch 22’.

It is interesting that the federal government provides a single refugee with a monthly allowance of $1,890.00 and each can also obtain an additional $580.00 in social assistance for a total of $2,470.00/month.  This compares very well to a single pensioner who after contributing to the growth and development of America for 40 to 50 years can only receive a monthly maximum of $1,012.00 in old age Pension and Guaranteed Income Supplement.

Maybe our pensioners should apply as Refugees! Consider sending this to all your American friends, so we can all be ticked off and maybe get the refugees cut back to $1,012.00 and the pensioners up to $2,470.00 and enjoy some of the money we were forced to submit to the Government over the last 40 or 50 or 60 years.

Please forward to every American to expose what our elected politicians(Nancy Pelosi Included) have been doing over the past 11 years – to the over-taxed American.

This message is replete with lies.  To begin with, it creates a false comparison between very different federal programs — SSI and Medicaid are different from social security retirement payments.  SSI and Medicaid are “means-tested public benefits” for people with low income and qualifying disabilities.  The e-mail might as well complain about anyone who receives these benefits.  But to claim that immigrants and refugees somehow enjoy these benefits more than citizens is absurd.

An immigrant who is over 65 cannot automatically apply for SSI and Medicaid.  The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 imposed broad restrictions that prevent immigrants from getting most public benefits.  These laws are very detailed, but here are the basic facts:

  • Most lawful immigrants (except refugees and some other humanitarian immigrants) who entered the country after 1996 are barred from receiving SSI at all.  It is simply not available to them until they become citizens or work for 10 years in the U.S.  After that, they are eligible to the same extent as any other resident.
  • Undocumented immigrants cannot get SSI and Medicaid at all.  They can only get emergency Medicaid, which is for immediate medical treatment that is severe and could cause serious jeopardy to the patient’s health.  Basically, this means that they can get emergency room services only, with no follow-up care.
  • Most lawful immigrants (except refugees and some other humanitarian immigrants) who entered the country after 1996 are ineligible to receive any “federal means-tested public benefit” for five years after their lawful admission to the United States.  The only major public benefit available during those five years is emergency Medicaid.  Otherwise, they have to wait five years before getting any benefits.
  • Refugees are entitled to apply for SSI if they are disabled, but they can only receive it for seven years.  After that, they are cut off unless they become citizens.
  • The “facts” about the support payments that refugees get are totally false.  Refugees do get some support payments for 8 months, and certain other benefits like food stamps.  However, payments that refugees are given are not permanent.  They are for a very limited duration of time.  The purpose of these payments are to help displaced refugees find their footing in a new country.  These are not comparable to retirement payments! also does a good job of debunking this myth, which has been circulating the Internet for many years now.

E-mails like these use lies to fuel xenophobic sentiment.  If you come across this message, or hear it repeated in public, please do your part to correct these falsehoods.


  1. Harry L. Hughes says:

    Can you provide links(other than snopes) to support your findings?
    I came across the following: Refugees eligibile for federal public benefits
    As you are more than likely well aware, it’s hard to believe things found online, therefore, making it necessary to verify data using multiple sources.

    1. The link you provided is written by a non-profit that assists refugees, and addresses the ability of refugees to receive certain public benefits. As I note in my post, refugees are treated differently from other immigrants and can receive certain benefits, but are cut off after seven years. It is important to recognize the distinction between refugees and other immigrants. Refugees are individuals who were able to prove to the government that they would suffer persecution in their home country on account of their race, religion, or political beliefs. Most nations recognize the importance of protecting such refugees, and our laws create special benefits for refugees.

      Refugees are a very small number of the immigrants who come to the United States. Other immigrants are barred from receiving most public benefits as I describe in this post.

      As far as additional resources go, the National Immigration Law Center provides some useful resources on this complex topic.