Verification of Citizenship and Immigrant Status Required of All Applicants for Public Benefits 

  1. Introduction
  2. Definition of Federal Public Benefit
  3. Exemptions to the Federal Public Benefit Requirement
  4. The Verification Process
  5. State Option to Verify for State and Local Public Benefits
  6. Concerns Of States And Localities; Comments to HHS and INS
  7. Related Issue: Reporting Requirement
  8. References



The 1996 federal welfare law requires state and local agencies to verify the immigration status of all applicants for federal public benefits. To date, only the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has defined "federal public benefit", a list that includes TANF, Medicaid, Medicare, CHIP, foster care & adoption, child care and development fund, LIHEAP, refugee programs, and SSBG. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has issued interim guidance and a proposed rule on how states should comply with the new requirement. States have two years from the issuance of the final rule to implement verification procedures. The INS' final rule on verification is expected to be issued in September, 2000.

To comply with the statute and avoid exposure to anti-discrimination legislation, state and local governments will be required to provide citizenship and immigrant status verification for every person served by programs outlined in the federal definition. 

Definition of Federal Public Benefit

According to the 1996 federal welfare law, "not qualified" immigrants are not eligible for any "federal public benefit" unless a specified exemption applies. A "federal public benefit" includes a) grants, contracts, loans, professional licenses, or commercial licenses' provided to an individual; and b) any retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, postsecondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefit, or any other similar benefit for which payments are provided to an individual, household, or family eligibility unit. Providers of federal public benefits must verify that a person applying for the benefit is a "qualified alien" and is eligible to receive the benefit.

"Qualified aliens", a term created in the 1996 welfare law, includes lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, Cuban-Haitian entrants, Amerasians, aliens paroled into the U.S. for a period of at least one year, aliens granted withholding of deportation by the INS, aliens granted conditional entry into the U.S., and certain battered immigrant spouses and children. Those who are "non-qualified" immigrants include undocumented or illegal immigrants as well as immigrants formerly considered eligible for benefits by the courts, known as "PRUCOL". The term "qualified" does not connote eligibility for benefit programs. Immigrants must meet all program eligibility requirements.

The U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (HHS) has defined 31 programs that provide "federal public benefits", and are not otherwise exempted under the federal welfare law. All of these programs must be barred to nonqualified immigrants, and states must verify all applicants to these programs for citizenship or immigrant status. State or local services or benefits that are wholly or partially funded with HHS resources must comply with this interpretation.

  1. Adoption Assistance;
  2. Administration on Developmental Disabilities (ADD)- State Developmental Disabilities Councils (direct services only);
  3. ADD- Special Projects (direct services only);
  4. ADD- University Affiliated Programs (clinical disability assessment services only);
  5. Adult Programs/Payments to Territories;
  6. Agency for Health Care Policy and Research Dissertation Grants;
  7. Child Care and Development Fund;
  8. Clinical Training Grant for Faculty Development in Alcohol & Drug Abuse;
  9. Foster Care;
  10. Health Profession Education and Training Assistance;
  11. Independent Living Program;
  12. Job Opportunities for Low Income Individuals (JOLI);
  13. Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP);
  14. Medicare;
  15. Medicaid (except assistance for an emergency medical condition);
  16. Mental Health Clinical Training Grants;
  17. Native Hawaiian Loan Program;
  18. Refugee Cash Assistance;
  19. Refugee Medical Assistance;
  20. Refugee Preventive Health Services Program;
  21. Refugee Social Services Formula Program;
  22. Refugee Social Services Discretionary Program;
  23. Refugee Targeted Assistance Formula Program;
  24. Refugee Targeted Assistance Discretionary Program;
  25. Refugee Unaccompanied Minors Program;
  26. Refugee Voluntary Agency Matching Grant Program;
  27. Repatriation Program;
  28. Residential Energy Assistance Challenge Option (REACH);
  29. Social Services Block Grant (SSGB);
  30. State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP); and,
  31. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

The interpretation of federal public benefit hinges on the "individual, household or family eligibility unit" that receives the benefit. The benefit must be provided to an individual, household, or family, and must require specified criteria such as income. Thus, while the 31 programs provide "federal public benefits", it does not mean that all benefits or services provided under these programs are "federal public benefits". Some services provided by the programs might be delivered to a community or building rather than to an individual or household, e.g., weatherization for multi-unit buildings funded by LIHEAP. The interpretation also excludes benefits targeted to communities or specified sectors of the population (e.g., people with particular physical conditions, such as a disability or disease; gender; general age groups, such as youth or elderly). Thus, a benefit provided under the Maternal and Child Health program, which provides health services to women and children, is not a federal public benefit. HHS has also determined that programs that provide a preponderance of services to communities (rather than to individuals, families, or households) should not be burdened with new verification procedures.

HHS noted that SSBG does not have statutorily mandated eligibility criteria and would not normally be included under their definition. However, they did include SSBG as a "federal public benefit" because the federal welfare law, in section 402, lists SSBG as a federally designated program for which States can determine the eligibility of qualified aliens. HHS maintains that this would have created a possibility that a state could deny benefits to qualified aliens but maintain access to non-qualified aliens.

Under the Child Care and Development Fund, only the citizenship and immigration status of the child, who is the primary beneficiary of the child care benefit, is relevant for eligibility purposes. (HHS Program Instruction ACYF-PI-CC-98-08, issued November 25, 1998) 

Exemptions to the Federal Public Benefit Requirement

The INS proposed rule notes there are three lists of programs exempt from verification requirements: 1) the regulatory definition of "Federal public benefit" that describes what is not a public benefit; 2) the regulatory definition that exempts programs that are federal public benefits; and 3) "other" programs described by INS in the proposed rule. These exemptions include:

  1. Assistance for health care items and services necessary for the treatment of an emergency medical condition;
  2. Short-term, non-cash, in-kind emergency disaster relief
  3. Public health assistance for immunizations and for testing and treatment of symptoms of communicable disease. (Section 401(b)(1)(C) of PRWORA)
  4. Services or assistance specified by the Attorney General that a) deliver in-kind services at the community level; b) do not condition the provision of assistance, the amount of assistance provided, or the cost of assistance provided on the individual recipient's income or resources, and c) are necessary for the protection of life or safety are also exempted. Programs specified in that regulation as exempt by the Attorney General include:
  1. Crisis counseling and intervention programs, services and assistance relating to child protection, adult protective services, violence and abuse prevention, victims of domestic violence or other criminal activity, or treatment of mental illness or substance abuse;
  2. Short-term shelter or housing assistance for the homeless, for victims of domestic violence, or for runaway, abused or abandoned children;
  3. Programs, services, or assistance to help individuals during periods of heat, cold, or other adverse weather conditions;
  4. Soup kitchens, community food banks, senior nutrition programs such as meals on wheels, and other such community nutritional services for persons requiring special assistance;
  5. Medical and public health services (including treatment and prevention of diseases and injuries) and mental health, disability or substance abuse assistance necessary to protect life or safety;
  6. Activities design to protect the life and safety of workers, children and youths, or community residents; and
  7. Any other programs, services, or assistance necessary for the protection of life or safety.
  1. Medicaid assistance for emergency medical care;
  2. Programs for housing or community development assistance or financial assistance; and
  3. Basic public education; school lunch, school breakfast; wages, pensions and veterans benefits to immigrants not residing in the United States.

Nonprofit charitable organizations are not required to verify an applicant's immigration or citizenship status before providing federal, state, or local public benefits. State and local governments may not impose verification requirements on nonprofit charitable organizations.  

The Verification Process

Agencies that administer federal public benefits must verify that applicants are eligible for those benefits. Agencies should first determine if the benefit is a "federal public benefit" and whether it is exempted from verification. Second, determine if the applicant is eligible under the general requirements of the benefit program. Third, verify whether the applicant is a citizen, national, or qualified alien. Fourth, determine whether qualified immigrants meet the additional eligibility requirements of PRWORA for TANF, Medicaid, SCHIP, Food Stamps, and SSI, e.g., date of entry into the U.S.

Agencies should note that verification should be used only when the benefit is contingent on citizenship or immigration status and applied only to the person receiving benefits.

Benefit granting agencies must verify eligibility without regard to sex, color, race, religion, national origin (except that Cuban, Haitian and Canadian nationality may be relevant), or disability.

Declaration of Status and Examination of Documents:

  1. Written Declaration of Applicant. Applicants must declare under penalty of law whether the applicant is a national of the United States. Without this declaration, the individual's eligibility as an alien must be verified.
  2. Evidence of Alien Registration. The proposed rule states that most aliens are registered with INS upon their entry into the U.S., and are issued a registration document. In most cases, the registration will indicate an alien's immigration status. This status will often relate to whether the alien is a "qualified" alien under PRWORA. However, additional information may be relevant to qualified alien status that is not related to current immigration status shown on INSdocuments, for example, battered immigrant spouses and children.
  3. Evidence of U.S. nationality. There is no central registry of information on nationals of the United States, and the SAVE system is not suitable for verifying U.S. nationality. No system is available for broadbased automated verification of claims to U.S. nationality by applicants for public benefits. Verification will rely on the examination of documents. The variety of documents that applicants may possess or be able to obtain is large: 10 "primary evidence" and 19 "secondary evidence" documents exist to prove U.S nationality.
  4. Proof of Identity. If the above documents do not include a photograph or sufficient identifying information, the applicant must present an identification document.
  5. Standard for Accepting Documents. Documents must be original and unexpired, and must appear to the benefit granting agency to be reasonably genuine and related to the applicant. Documents that do not reasonably appear to be genuine should be subjected to further verification through the INS or the issuer of the document.
  6. Attestation. A benefit granting agency may rely on an applicant's attestation of U.S. nationality as an interim basis on which to grant a public benefit temporarily.
  7. Alternative procedures for determining U.S. nationality. Federal public benefit granting agencies may already have verification procedures for U.S. nationality. Agencies may continue existing rules that are fair and nondiscriminatory instead of this rule upon approval of the Attorney General.

Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE).

The SAVE system was established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and has been used to determine eligibility for certain federal benefits, including Medicaid, AFDC, food stamps, housing, unemployment insurance, and education. States have received waivers from SAVE if they have another effective verification method or if the costs of using SAVE would outweigh the savings. SAVE users must pay for the verification service. Section 840 of PRWORA ended the requirement that state agencies use SAVE to verify alien eligibility for food stamps. Agencies are subject to subparts of the rule that do not pertain to SAVE.

  1. Primary verification under SAVE. The agency makes this automated inquiry within 3 days of completing document examination procedures above. INS has 3 days to respond. The response will indicate the immigration status or refer to a secondary verification.
  2. Secondary verification under SAVE. This inquiry must be made within 5 days of the primary verification, and will be reviewed by an INS status verifier, normally within 10 days.
  3. Victims of Domestic Violence. Benefit granting agencies may examine, in lieu or in addition to evidence of alien registration, other documentary evidence relating to whether the applicant has an approved or prima facie petition, and contact the appropriate immigration court or the INS Vermont Service Center.
  4. Training. It is the responsibility of INS to provide training materials regarding SAVE, and of benefit granting agencies to take advantage of such training.
  5. Verification of eligibility not contained within INS. The proposed rule provides procedures for verifying whether the veteran and active duty exception applies to an applicant, as well as the exemption for 40 quarters of qualifying work, American Indians; and Hmong or Highland Laotians.  

State Option To Verify For State And Local Public Benefits

PRWORA does not require verification for state and local public benefits. Under PRWORA, state and local governments may verify whether an applicant for state or local public benefits is a citizen, national, qualified alien, nonimmigrant, or alien paroled into the U.S. for less than 1 year, for purposes of determining whether the applicant is eligible for the benefit. States may use SAVE or decide to establish their own verification procedures but must apply them in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner. 

Concerns of States And Localities; Comments to HHS and INS

In response to the proposed rules on federal public benefit and verification, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Public Human Services Association, the National Governors' Association, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors submitted joint comments to HHS and to INS. The organizations raised concerns over the inclusion of several programs in the definition, notably the Social Services Block Grant, child protective services, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and child care. Regarding verification, states and localities are concerned that the required use of SAVE could prove costly and burdensome to implement. In addition, extensive training will be required for eligibility workers on the 34 acceptable forms of identification for citizenship, nationality, and immigrant status. 

Related Issue: Reporting Requirement

The welfare law requires quarterly reports to INS for TANF, SSI, and public housing of persons the agencies "knows is not lawfully present" in the United States. Guidance is forthcoming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 


Legislative References: Section 401 and Section 432 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), P.L. 104-193.

U.S. Department of Justice, Specification of Community Programs Necessary for Protection of Life or Safety Under Welfare Reform Legislation. Federal Register August 30, 1996 (61 FR 45985)

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Interim Guidance on Verification of Citizenship, Qualified Alien Status and Eligibility under Title IV of PRWORA, issued November 17, 1997.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed rule, Federal Register (Volume 63, Number 149) at pages 41658-61, August 4, 1998.

U.S. Department of Justice/Immigration and Naturalization Service proposed rule, Federal Register (Volume 63, Number 149) at pages 41662-41686, August 4, 1998.