OLR Research Report

December 13, 2007




By: Robin K. Cohen, Principal Analyst

You asked for a summary of the immigrant provisions in the 1996 welfare reform act, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA).

This report addresses the general bar that PROWRA imposes on public assistance benefits and the state's response to it. Attached is a 2004 report, Noncitizen Eligibility for Major Federal Public Assistance Programs: Policies and Legislation by the Congressional Research Service. In addition to providing a more thorough summary of federal program eligibility, it describes PRWORA's “deeming” rules that apply to sponsors of immigrants.


The 1996 federal PRWORA legislation generally barred new legal immigrants from federally funded assistance programs for their first five years in the U.S. It made exceptions for certain groups, including political asylees and refugees. (Subsequent enactments eased some of PROWRA's restrictions.) In response, the legislature established state-funded programs to ensure that this assistance remained available. These programs continue to operate, despite attempts by the Executive Branch to eliminate them.


Federal Law—PROWRA and Amendments

The 1996 PROWRA legislation generally barred legal immigrants who entered the country after August 22, 1996 from receiving means-tested, federally funded assistance (i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, and Food Stamps) for their first five years in the country. But immigrants living in the country as of that date were barred altogether from the Food Stamps and SSI programs until they became citizens. (States could provide cash assistance under TANF and Medicaid to legal immigrants who were living in the country on August 22, 1996.)

The PRWORA legislation also cut off other groups by redefining “qualified alien.” For example, it excluded from this definition certain people who had been in the U.S. for a long time and whom the Immigration and Naturalization Service or a court had decided not to deport; their status was previously considered to be “permanently residing under color of law (PRUCOL).”

The law exempted certain immigrants from the bar on assistance. They included refugees, people granted asylum, victims of domestic violence, non-citizens who were veterans of the U.S. armed forces, people who had worked in the U.S. for 40 calendar quarters, and other selected groups. However, assistance for some of these groups was and remains time-limited.

Immigrants in the U.S. illegally were barred from benefits, except for assistance for medical emergencies.

Congress loosened the restrictions on Food Stamp, SSI, and TANF eligibility in 1997 and 1998 (PL 105-18, PL 105-33, PL 105-185). And in 2002, Congress passed the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (PL 107-171). The part of the act re-authorizing the Food Stamp program included provisions that made it easier for legal immigrants to get back into the Food Stamps program, in several stages:

1. October 1, 2002 for disabled “qualified” legal immigrants who met the definition of disability in the Food Stamp law regardless of when they entered the U.S.;

2. April 1, 2003 for “qualified” immigrants ages 18-64 who had been in the U.S. for five years (this ended PRWORA's seven-year limit on Food Stamp benefits for refugees and people who had been granted asylum); and

3. October 1, 2003 for qualified immigrant children without the five-year residency requirement.

State Response to Federal Law

PRWORA allowed states to set up separate, state-funded programs for legal immigrants. Hence, the 1997 legislature established short-term, state-funded programs to assist legal immigrants who lost their eligibility for TANF-funded cash assistance, Medicaid, and the Connecticut Home Care Program for Elders. When the legislature established the HUSKY program in the 1997 special session, it simultaneously created a state-funded version for immigrant children ineligible for the new federally funded program (HUSKY B). In 1998, the legislature required DSS to create a state-funded Food Stamps program for those immigrants barred from federal benefits. And in 2000, it extended these programs to people who formerly held PRUCOL status. All of these programs, which impose a six-month residency requirement, continue to operate today, despite numerous attempts by the Rowland administration to terminate them.

For a more complete legislative history of the state legislation, including summaries of floor debate, please see OLR Report 2003-R-0618. OLR Report 2005-R-0462 provides a listing of state programs open to immigrants (legal and illegal).