Public Benefits

Public Benefits

What is a Public Charge?

Can I Receive...

Who Can I Call if I Have Questions or Need Legal Help?

The United States government makes available public benefits for people who need help with food, healthcare, and day-to-day expenses. To qualify for each of these benefits, you have to meet certain income, resource and/or health requirements.

Some immigrants qualify for major public benefits programs. Depending on your status, you could qualify for healthcare, food stamps, cash assistance, low-cost housing, energy assistance, and child care assistance.

It is important to know that U.S. citizen children of immigrant parents have the same rights to public benefits as all other citizens - regardless of the immigration status of their parents. For example, undocumented parents may apply for public benefits for their U.S. citizen children. When applying, be clear that you are applying only for your children, and not for yourself. You should not have to reveal your own immigration status if you are applying for benefits only for your children and not yourself. If you feel you must mention something about your immigration status, it is best to state simply that you do not have an immigration status which qualifies you to obtain benefits. You should not ever feel you have to reveal that you are undocumented. Never show the welfare office proof that you are residing unlawfully in the country, such as an order of deportation against you.

If you apply for benefits for your children but are denied based on your failure to provide information regarding your own immigration status or social security number, call Community Legal Services at 215-227-6485.


It is very important that, if you are a sponsored immigrant in the United States, and you intend to eventually apply for legal permanent residency (green card) or citizenship in this country, you do not become a public charge.

A public charge is someone whom the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services identifies as likely to become dependent on government assistance to survive. Immigrants who are determined to be public charges will be denied a green card and they can also be denied re-entry into the United States if they have been away from the country for more than six months.

Public charge affects people who are or will be applying for the green card. It also affects green card holders who live outside of the U.S. for more than six months at a time.

The term public charge does not apply to refugees, asylees, Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act applicants and certain other categories of immigrants, people applying for citizenship, and green card holders who do not leave the U.S. for more than six months at a time.

You may be considered a public charge if you are a legal permanent resident and you are:

  • receiving cash assistance (SSI, TANF, and General Assistance), and/or
  • receiving long-term institutional care funded by Medicaid, such as nursing home care or long term residence in a mental health institution.

If you have received these benefits in the past, but are now working and supporting yourself, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will consider past status when deciding whether you are likely to become a public charge.

The public benefits that you can receive without any risk of being considered a public charge include:

  • Medicaid
  • Food Stamps, WIC, and school meals
  • Child care, energy assistance, housing assistance, foster care or adoption assistance, and other assistance that is not cash assistance.

If you encounter problems, call Community Legal Services at (215) 227-2400.


The food stamp program, also called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that provides low income individuals and families with coupons and electronic benefits transfer cards to buy some kinds of food such as bread, cereals, dairy products, vegetables, and meat. The coupons and cards are accepted at most supermarkets, corner stores, and many smaller outdoor markets.

Based on your household income, you might qualify for food stamps. However, you also need to check on whether your immigration status allows you to receive food stamps.

In Pennsylvania, food stamps, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are generally available only to citizens or qualified immigrants. Food stamps and SSI are generally not eligible to all immigrants; only a subset of immigrants qualify. Below is a list of "qualified immigrants":

  • Lawful Permanent Residents (green card holders)
  • Asylees, refugees, and Cuban/Haitian entrants
  • Persons granted Withholding of Deportation or Withholding of Removal
  • Persons granted "parolee" status for one year or more
  • Certain battered spouses or children

The following "qualified" legal immigrants can get food stamps right away:

  • Children under 18
  • Persons who have lived in the US for five years or more as a "qualified" immigrant.
  • Refugees, Asylees, Cuban/Haitian Entrants, Amerasian Immigrants, those Granted Withholding of Deportation
  • Those receiving certain disability benefits
  • Seniors who were born before August 22, 1931 and who were lawfully residing in the US on August 22, 1996
  • Veterans or those serving in the U.S. military and their immediate family members.
  • Lawful Permanent Residents with 40 quarters (10 years) of work or more (this may include parents' and spouse's work history)
  • Victims of trafficking
  • Certain members of Hmong or Laotian tribes and certain American Indians born abroad


  • You DO NOT have to pay back the food stamps you get.
  • Getting food stamps will not affect your immigration status. You cannot be considered a public charge if you receive food stamps.
  • If you are undocumented but your child was born in the United States, you can apply for food stamps for your child.


Pennsylvania has two cash programs for low-income people:

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families ("TANF") provides cash to families with children and pregnant women. TANF also pays for work-related expenses, including child care, uniforms, and transportation to work or while looking for a job.


General Assistance ("GA") provides cash to certain groups of people, including:

  • Persons whom a doctor says are unable to work due to a temporary or long-term physical or mental disability;
  • Persons who are in a drug or alcohol treatment program which precludes them from working;
  • Persons who are caring for a child or a disabled adult who has no other caretaker;
  • Persons who are survivors of domestic violence.

Find out if you qualify and how you can apply for cash assistance.

You can apply for TANF, GA, Food Stamps, and MA by visiting your local welfare office. To find your local office, call 215-560-2547. If you do not speak English, let them know and an interpreter will be provided for you.


Supplemental Security Income, or "SSI," is cash for two groups of people:

  • People over 65
  • Adults or children with serious, long-term physical or mental disabilities

Only certain groups of immigrants are eligible for SSI. "Qualified Immigrants" who:

  • Were receiving SSI on August 22, 1996,
  • Are currently disabled and were lawfully residing in the U.S. on August 22, 1996,
  • Refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian Entrants, Amerasian Immigrants or Persons Granted Withholding of Deportation or Withholding of Removal (during the first 7 years after getting status), or
  • Veterans or those serving in the U.S. military (or their immediate family members),
  • Lawful Permanent Residents with "40 quarters" (10 years) of work or more who have been qualified immigrants for 5 years or more (this may include parents' and spouse's work history).

Where can I apply for SSI?


  • Apply for SSI at your local Social Security Office. To locate your Social Security Office, call 1-800-772-1213.


The Pennsylvania Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) helps low income families with their monthly heating and cooling bills by subsidizing some of the cost. The agency directly pays the utility company the approved subsidy, and the reduced rate will be reflected on your bill. Find out if you qualify for LIHEAP.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission also helps people with their heating bills, by providing, among other programs, budget billing, and cash assistance. View eligibility requirements.


If you have specific questions regarding immigrants' rights to public benefits, contact Community Legal Services at 215-227-6485.