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9. Immigrant eligibility for food stamps

In California, “qualified” immigrants, victims of trafficking and “U” visa applicants/holders (and a few other groups) get food stamps through one of two programs: either the regular, federally funded Food Stamp Program or the state-funded California Food Assistance Program (CFAP). [MPP § 63-403.] The regular Food Stamp Program restricts food stamp eligibility to immigrants who fall into certain categories. In contrast, CFAP is open to other qualified immigrants [federal time limits on eligibility do not apply in CFAP], trafficking victims and “U” visa applicant/holders who are ineligible for federal food stamps on the basis of their immigration status. Aside from who is eligible, the regular Food Stamp Program and CFAP differ only in whether the federal government or the state pays for the benefits.  For a listing of immigrant eligibility, see the CDSS Noncitizen Eligibility Reference Guide, at ACIN I-102-10, and this handy FNS chart of SNAP immigrant policy.

Immigrants (and others) who do  not want to get benefits for themselves may “opt out.” (See Joint Guidance; this happens automatically if the person fails to provide a Social Security number (SSN). MPP §63-402.22)  They will still be part of any household with which they buy and cook food, but they will not get benefits. They will be treated as excluded household members, and a pro-rata portion of their income counted against the rest of the household.

Federal Food Stamp Program requirements

NOTE: If present legally, but not eligible for federal food benefits, immigrants should be eligible for the state-funded program. (See CFAP, below.) For more details about Food Stamp Program interpretation of immigrant eligibility, see FNS Eligibility Determination Guidance, Non-Citizen Requirements in the Food Stamp Program (January 2003) (“FNS Guidance”). The FNS Guidance also provides additional information on the eligibility impact of sponsor deeming, public charge, and verification of immigration status, pp. 1-3, discussed below. The USCIS agency has also produced an updated Public Charge Fact Sheet.

Many qualified immigrants can get federal food stamps if they are otherwise eligible. The general rule now is that immigrant adults can get federal food stamps after they have been in the United States in “qualified” immigrant status for five years, and some immigrants can get them right away. [8 U.S.C. § 1612(a)(2), 7 C.F.R. §273.4.] Children, people in certain humanitarian immigration categories (such as refugees and asylees, and victims of trafficking), people with military connections, people with credit for 10 years of work history in the United States, and persons receiving disability benefits, are eligible right away. [7 C.F.R. § 273.4.]

The rules about which immigrants can get federal food stamps have changed several times since 1996. The 2002 Farm Bill restored eligibility to many legal immigrants. [See FNS summary, Section 4401 changes.] As of January 2010, the final Farm Bill regulations have been in place.

Most legal immigrants must (1) be a “qualified immigrant”; AND (2) meet a condition that allows the qualified immigrant to get federal food stamps.  The 2002 Farm Bill regulations provide that if a person is originally found to be an eligible immigrant, a subsequent adjustment to a more limited status does not override the eligibility. If the eligibility expires, however, the agency must determine if the person is eligible under another status. [7 C.F.R. § 273.4(a)(5)(iv).]

Qualified immigrants are:

  • lawful permanent residents (LPRs), including Amerasian immigrants; or
  • refugees, asylees, persons granted withholding of deportation, conditional entry (in effect prior to Apr. 1, 1980), or paroled for at least one year, and ; or
  • Cuban/Haitian entrants;
  • adults or minors subject to severe trafficking, or their spouse/parents/children; or
  • certain battered spouses and children.

[8 U.S.C. § 1641(b),(c); 7 C.F.R. §273.4. California regulations have not been amended, and so erroneously still list certain categories of immigrants eligible for the federal program as only eligible to CFAP.] There is a brief period in which Iraqis and Afghanis who had been employed by the US (translators and interpreters) with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) can be eligible for Food Stamps. The time period for eligibility is six to eight months depending on eligibility criteria. ACL 08-35.  Also, June, 2012, the Obama admisintration announced that people who were brought to the US as children can be considered for for relief from removal from the country or from entering into removal proceedings.  Although DHS is developing criteria for deferred action, under current guidance: if the individual was granted withholding of deportation, they would be a qualified immigrant. If the individual has some other classification of status, they would either be federal, if meeting another “qualified” immigrant category, or eligible for CFAP.

Qualified immigrants must also meet ONE of the following conditions to receive federal food stamps:

  • have been in the United States as a qualified immigrant for five years (these do not have to be consecutive); or
  • be under 18; or
  • be receiving disability-related assistance (as defined in the Food Stamp Program; see the section of this guide about how “disabled” is defined); or
  • have one of the following immigration statuses:
    • refugee
    • asylee
    • person granted withholding of deportation or removal
    • Cuban or Haitian entrant
    • victim of trafficking
    • Amerasian
    • lawful permanent resident (LPR) who used to have one of the above immigration statuses; or
  • be a veteran of the United States military, or a member of the United States military, or a spouse or child of a person in the military or a veteran; or
  • be a lawful permanent resident with at least 40 quarters of work in the United States (see Section 10); or
  • be a member of a Hmong or Laotian tribe that fought with the United States military during the Vietnam War, who is lawfully residing in the United States; or
  • on Aug. 22, 1996, have been 65 years or older and lawfully residing in the United States (i.e., born before August 22, 1931); or
  • be an American Indian with certain rights to cross the border between the United States and Canada or Mexico.

[8 U.S.C. § 1612(a)(2); 7 C.F.R. §273.4.]

In addition, the following categories of legal immigrants do NOT have to meet the qualified-immigrant test to receive federal food stamps:

  • certain Hmong or Highland Laotians who are lawfully present in the United States, with their spouses and children;
  • certain cross-border American Indians with treaty rights to cross between Canada or Mexico and the United States; and
  • victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons, who are eligible to the same extent as refugees.

[8 U.S.C. 1612 (a)(2)(K); 7 C.F.R. §273.4.]

The PRWORA is silent on whether immigrants granted Temporary Protected Status are qualified aliens. The FNS has concluded (at least for Haitians) that such status does not render the immigrant eligible for federal SNAP benefits.

California Food Assistance Program (CFAP) requirements

All qualified immigrants, victims of trafficking, and “U” visa applicants/holders who are not eligible for federal food stamps because of their immigration status are eligible for CFAP. [MPP § 63-403.] This includes eligible, noncitizen victims of human trafficking prior to certification for federal food stamps, and victims of domestic violence or other serious crimes (“U” visa applicants/holders). [Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 14005.2, 13283, 18945; All County Letters 06-60 and 08-15; All County Information Notice I-41-07.]

Sponsor deeming

Immigrants who entered the United States after December 19, 1997 may have sponsors who are legally required to support them. In some cases, if the immigrant applies for food stamps, the food stamp office may consider the sponsor’s income and resources as if these were available to the immigrant (called “sponsor deeming”). The deeming requirements apply only to some LPRs whose sponsor has signed a legally binding affidavit of support, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-864), on or after December 19, 1997. Note that there are important exceptions to these deeming rules. [7 C.F.R. § 273.4(c); 8 C.F.R. §§ 213a and 299; FNS Guidance pp 10-17; MPP § 63-403.2.] (For related information, see the section about treatment of resources of a sponsored non-citizen.)  There is no deeming if the immigrant is indigent. See ACL 11-06 on the indigency exception and verification  of this status.

The deeming rules for CFAP are more generous than the deeming rules for federal food stamps.

Public charge

“Public charge” means that certain immigrants seeking legal status in the U.S. (usually based on a relative or employer petition) may be denied that legal status if the immigrant is likely to become dependent on government assistant for support.  Receiving food stamps does not make an immigrant a “public charge.” [FNS Guidance, pp 26-27; see also the USCIS summary, A Quick Guide to Public Charge and Receipt of Public Benefits (October 18, 1999) (an immigrant will not be considered a public charge for using food stamps) and Fact Sheet.] This means that an immigrant to the United States will not be deported, denied entry to the country, or denied lawful permanent residence status on public charge grounds, due to his receipt of Nutrition Assistance.  This includes Nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)- commonly referred to as Food Stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and other supplementary and emergency food assistance programs. Similarly, lawful receipt of food stamps will not affect an immigrant’s ability to naturalize. [FNS Guidance, pp 26-27.]

Verification of immigration status

The food stamp office is required to verify the immigration status of individuals who are applying for food stamp benefits, but may not require applicants to provide information about the citizenship or immigration status of any non-applicant. The food stamp office may not deny benefits to an applicant because a non-applicant family or household member has not disclosed her citizenship or immigrant status. [FNS Guidance, p 28.]

If an applicant cannot provide acceptable verification of United States citizenship and the household can provide a reasonable explanation for the lack of verification, the food stamp office must accept a signed statement, under penalty of perjury, from a third party. [FNS Guidance, at p 29.]

For related information about verification of immigration status, see the U.S. Department of Justice position stated in Interim Guidance on Verification of Citizenship, Qualified Alien Status and Eligibility Under Title IV of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, 62 Fed.Reg. 61344 (November 17, 1997).