Thursday, July 11, 2013

Immigration Reform and Benefits Access as a Means of Keeping Families Together

On June 27th, the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S. 744), a comprehensive set of reforms of federal immigration policy. Title II of S. 744 contains many provisions of significance to low-income immigrant families, including the creation of a new immigrant status, an overhaul of current family and employment visas, policy on benefits access, and the creation of new farm worker and temporary worker visas.

The bill creates a new status, registered provisional immigrant (RPI), for people who were physically present in the U.S. on or before December 31, 2011; have maintained continuous presence until the date of application; have paid all federally assessed tax liabilities, fees and penalties; and have not been convicted of certain criminal offenses. RPI status may be renewed in six-year periods. After 10 years, individuals in RPI status may apply to adjust to lawful permanent resident (LPR or “green card”) status. An additional three years in LPR status is required before people initially granted RPI status may apply for U.S. citizenship.

The bill allows undocumented farm workers who can demonstrate a minimum of 100 work days or 575 work hours in the two years prior to the date of the bill’s enactment to be eligible for an agricultural card (“blue card”). Workers who work at least 100 days a year for five years or workers who perform at least 150 days a year for three years can adjust to LPR status. To be eligible for LPR status, agricultural workers must show that they have paid all taxes and fees, and have not been convicted of any serious crime.

The bill goes on to describe the applicability of benefits programs for these new immigrant statuses. A person granted RPI status or a blue card will not be eligible for nonemergency Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Supplemental Security Income for the duration of their provisional status. When they adjust to LPR status, they generally will be forced to wait at least five additional years before becoming eligible for these programs. A person granted RPI status or a blue card will be able to purchase private health insurance through the state Health Exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). However, as a RPI they are not eligible for the ACA’s premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions.

Immigration Policy’s Impact on Children and Families

The policies contained in this new Senate bill have important implications for keeping immigrant families together, because creating a legal means for families to remain in the U.S. will remove the threat of deportation, thereby preventing the children of immigrants from separation from their parents. Poor immigration policies and poor implementation and enforcement of policy can lead to severe consequences for immigrant families, in particular low-income undocumented children and families. In the first six months of 2011, the federal government removed more than 46,000 parents of U.S.-citizen children, and an alarming number of these children end up in foster care. Unfortunately, the exact number of children in foster care due to deportation of their parents is challenging to find because child welfare departments and the federal government do not document cases of families separated in this way. These children must wait months or years to see their parents, if they ever see them again at all.

The trauma of separation can be substantial for both immigrant parents and children. Parents are held in detention centers for an indefinite amount of time while their case is being reviewed, which leaves parents and children in the dark about when they will see each other again. Detention centers are on average 370 miles away from a detainee’s home, which can make visitation extremely difficult for families with limited resources. If the separation is long, the issue of language barriers can arise for infants and toddlers, who oftentimes must adjust to speaking English in their foster homes, and lose some of their native language. Loss of language can even become a major barrier to reunification, as some caseworkers and children’s attorneys deem communication between parent and child to be too difficult.

What Works

The Senate-passed bill would create new immigrant statuses that would bring millions of undocumented workers into more stability. While neither the Senate bill nor current federal policy extend public anti-poverty programs to families in RPI or LPR status, state policymakers have some leeway in supporting immigrant families’ ability to maintain their housing, meet their nutritional needs and support their ability to maintain consistent employment. Having access to these benefits can support families’ ability to maintain the extensive employment, income and fee requirements for RPI and LPR status, which would protect them from deportation, thereby preventing the devastating consequences of the separation of families, including trauma, parental alienation and loss of language and culture.

Immigrant families that live and work in the United States can be assisted in their stability and integration into the community with the help of public benefits. Federal statute limits the eligibility for essential means-tested social services, such as health insurance and food assistance, to non-citizens and legal residents who have lived in the U.S. for a minimum of five years. Under the Senate bill, an individual who began as a RPI would have to wait at least 15 years before becoming eligible to receive benefits from federal means-tested programs. However, states have the ability to use their funds to expand coverage to programs for low-income children and families who are not qualified for coverage under federal funding. States can:
  • Elect to provide Medicaid and CHIP to lawfully present immigrant children and pregnant women who meet the Medicaid state residency requirement.
  • Provide state-only food assistance to qualified immigrant families.
  • Expand TANF coverage to some or all qualified immigrants during the five-year ban. This could include cash assistance, childcare, transportation and/or housing assistance.
  • Implement welcome/outreach programs for new immigrants to assist with integration into society.
  • Support programs that assist eligible immigrants through the process of naturalization and increasing their civic engagement.
  • Support the policy force in addressing immigrant communities with proper communication and culturally sensitive measures.
  • Support policies that protect immigrants from deportation.
  • Create exceptions to the termination of parental rights timelines for incarcerated, detained and deported parents.
  • Institute “time-of-arrest” protocols for local law enforcement agencies to enable parents to decide who should take custody of their children.

For more on how access to benefits can reduce child poverty and prevent child abuse and neglect, see

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