Immigration: Can undocumented immigrants get federal public benefits?

In his State of the Union speech in February, President Donald Trump painted a picture of the effects of illegal immigration on the country's resources, saying undocumented immigrants stress the "social safety net" of the country.

>> Read more trending news

It wasn’t the first time the president complained about the cost undocumented immigrants present to the nation.

Trump tweeted in December that the estimated 11,300,000 undocumented immigrants who live in the United States present a staggering bill to U.S. taxpayers that is upwards of $200 billion a year.

In January, Trump challenged the estimated number of undocumented immigrants and gave an account of the estimated costs of those in the country illegally.

“We are not even into February and the cost of illegal immigration so far this year is $18,959,495,168. Cost Friday was $603,331,392. There are at least 25,772,342 illegal aliens, not the 11,000,000 that have been reported for years, in our Country. So ridiculous! DHS”

It is not clear where the president's number of $200 billion comes from. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors restrictions on immigration, uses the figure of $116 billion – owing that number to underpaid taxes by undocumented immigrants along with the cost of public education, law enforcement services and health care costs.

It is difficult to put an exact price tag on what undocumented immigrants cost the country, but some who deal with immigration and taxes issues are questioning the president’s numbers.

"That $200 billion figure (that Trump quoted) does seem inflated to me," Randy Capps, director for research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, told NBC News.

David Dyssegaard Kallick, the deputy director of the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute, told NBC it was "Frankly, absurd.”

"It's really hard to calculate anyone’s 'net cost' or 'net benefit.' We all use all kinds of services, from roads to military protection. How do we apportion what part of that is something I or you or an immigrant use?" Kallick said.

A 2017 study by the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy showed that undocumented immigrants contributed significantly to state and local taxes, collectively paying an estimated $11.74 billion a year in state and federal income taxes, state and local sales taxes and property taxes.

If that is the case, which services are driving up the price undocumented immigrants cost the country and are funds from federal public benefit programs part of that cost?

Here’s a look at the benefits available to both those who came to the U.S. legally and those who did not.

Which public benefits are available to lawful permanent residents?
People who have immigrated to the U.S. legally are eligible for most federal benefit programs, though there are some conditions.

Lawful permanent resident (LPR) is a classification for people who are not citizens of the United States but who are authorized to live and work in the country.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, people classified as LPRs "may accept an offer of employment without special restrictions, own property, receive financial assistance at public colleges and universities and join the armed forces."

They are also eligible for certain federal benefits after they have lived in the United States for more than five years. They do not have access to all federal or state benefits and are subject to some limitations on other benefits.

After five years of living in the United States, those who have maintained their LPR status are eligible to apply for the following federal benefits: (These benefits are means-tested, meaning the government determines whether the person applying has the financial means to do without the benefit)

  • Medicaid
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Medicare
  • Public housing

For LPRs to become eligible for Social Security benefits for both retirement and disability, they are required to have completed 40 quarters of work (10 years) in addition to having maintained LPR status for at least five years.

Which federal public benefits are available to undocumented immigrants?

In general, undocumented immigrants, meaning people from other countries who do not have a legal right to be in the United States, are not eligible for any federal public benefits.

However, there are instances where undocumented immigrants, including those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, may be eligible for some benefits that are considered necessary to protect life or guarantee safety in extreme circumstances.

Those include:

  • Emergency medical treatment under Medicaid if the individual meets the other eligibility requirements and the medical condition is not related to an organ transplant procedure.
  • Immunizations for immunizable diseases and testing for and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases.
  • Free public education for grades K-12.
  • Federally subsidized school lunch and school breakfast programs for those eligible for free public education under state or local law.

Undocumented immigrants in some cases may also be allowed services or assistance that were laid out in a 2001 U.S. Attorney General order.

That order included child and adult protective services; programs addressing weather emergencies and homelessness; shelters, soup kitchens and meals delivered to individuals; medical, public health and mental health services; disability or substance abuse services necessary to protect life or safety; and programs to protect workers and other community members.

Which state benefits are available to undocumented immigrants?

As with the federal government, state and local governments ban unauthorized immigrants from many assistance programs as well as the ability to get government contracts, licenses, grants and loans.
However, they are eligible for other state benefits such as:

  • Treatment for emergency conditions (other than those related to an organ transplant)
  • Short-term, in-kind emergency disaster relief
  • Immunization against immunizable diseases and testing for and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases.

Pregnant women and nursing mothers are generally eligible for benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women-Infants-Children (WIC).

WIC provides federal grants to states for supplemental food, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.

If an undocumented immigrant gives birth to a child in the United States, that child could be enrolled in Medicaid to get health care, but the undocumented parents could not. Medicaid is funded by the federal government and administered by the state. The child would be allowed in the program because children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents become U.S. citizens at birth.

Twenty-five states have programs that provide health care for low-income immigrant children lawfully living in the United States. Six states – California, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts, along with the District of Columbia – provide Medicaid to children regardless of immigration status.

Those states do not get federal Medicaid matching funds to help pay for that cost. The states that provide Medicaid to immigrant children with legal residency do get federal funds to help pay for the cost of the care.

In this Thursday, March 14, 2019, photo, families who crossed the nearby U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas are placed in a Border Patrol vehicle.