The end of Title 42, the pandemic-era rule that allowed government authorities to turn away migrants seeking entry at the U.S.’ southern border, is raising questions about a possible increase in the number of people entering the country and the potential cost to taxpayers.
So far, a spike in illegal border entries hasn’t materialized, although Border Patrol agents on Friday apprehended 6,300 migrants — a historically high level. At the same time, the Biden administration is seeking to expand ways for migrants to come to the U.S. legally, including a program for migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who have American sponsors.
Unauthorized migrants aren’t eligible many types of federal aid, although some states have extended social service programs to include them. Migrants without documentation are also often fearful of claiming benefits because they don’t want to risk deportation or legal problems, said Tanya Broder, senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).
“The federal rules are quite restrictive,” she noted. “Some states have recognized the value of investing in total health and well-being of all their residents, so they may fill in the gap.”
Although some migrants are quickly deported directly from the southern border or kept in immigration detention, many migrants — particularly asylum-seekers and families with children — are released into the U.S. with court notices or instructions to check in with immigration officials.
While they don’t have legal status, they are allowed by the government to live in the U.S. while an immigration judge decides whether they qualify to stay or should be deported — a process that can take years. Here’s what to know about migrants and what government benefits they can and cannot receive.
Can unauthorized migrants access federal aid programs?
Unauthorized migrants, or those who haven’t entered the U.S. through a legal pathway such as receiving a work visa or gaining asylum or refugee status, aren’t eligible for most major federal aid programs, according to the NILC.
That means unauthorized migrants can’t receive benefits from programs including food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (or welfare), and Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, among other federal aid.
However, there are some federal programs that these migrants may qualify for, although they are limited. They include emergency Medicaid, which pays for the medical costs of unauthorized migrants in the case of a medical emergency. School meal programs are available to all children, regardless of their immigration status.
Can legal migrants tap federal aid programs?
Yes, but generally only after they have resided in the U.S. for five years.
That means most immigrants who are in the U.S. through an asylum program, or even if they have received a green card that makes them a legal resident alien, can’t receive Medicaid, food stamps or other federal support until that five-year waiting period is over. There are several exceptions to this time restriction, such as for victims of human trafficking.
Can migrants get benefits through state programs?
Some states have enacted laws that allow migrants to tap their benefit programs, with the NILC noting that almost every state allows migrants of any standing to access Women, Infants and Children, a nutrition and food-aid program for pregnant women and children up to age 5.
Some states extend benefits to migrants who are in the U.S. legally, but still exclude unauthorized migrants. For instance, California’s food-aid program CalFresh will provide benefits to refugees, asylum seekers and green card holders, among others, but it doesn’t extend that support to undocumented migrants.
The Supreme Court has ruled that migrant children have the right to attend kindergarten through grade 12 public schools.
Is there a cost to taxpayers?
Some states argue that even providing limited services to unauthorized migrants comes with a price tag. Texas, for instance, claims that its taxpayers spend $850 million annually due to migrants who cross the border without proper documentation.
Texas officials say their biggest costs stem from providing health care services to unauthorized migrants. Public hospitals pay as much as $717 million each year for uncompensated care for this group, while emergency Medicaid covers as much as $90 million in costs, according to the state.
Do unauthorized migrants pay taxes?
Unauthorized migrants paid almost $31 billion in federal and state taxes in 2021, according to Immigration Impact, a project of the American Immigration Council. Many pay taxes by using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, since they don’t have Social Security numbers.
About 50% to 75% of unauthorized migrants pay federal taxes, according to the right-leaning Cato Institute.
Do migrants get help from U.S. taxpayers?
In the long term, immigrants aren’t a financial drain on native-born taxpayers, according to EconoFact, a nonpartisan publication that examines economic issues. However, it noted that states may bear more of the cost of immigration than the federal government because states and local communities invest in educating all children, including those of unauthorized migrants.
With the current labor market shortage in the U.S., some experts are advocating for more immigration to the U.S., especially as baby boomers continue to retire in droves and the country’s birth rate drops.
During the pandemic, when immigration was curtailed during the health crisis, industries that depend on immigration had larger shares of unfilled openings, EconoFact noted.
“The shortfall of immigrants over the past two years has had immediate adverse consequences for filling jobs and also harms the long-run prospects for the U.S. economy,” noted Giovanni Peri and Reem Zaiour, economists at University of California, Davis, in EconoFact.