Everyone who calls the United States home deserves opportunities to thrive in our economy and support our families. But today, immigrants—particularly immigrants of color—experience hardships like housing insecurity and lack of access to health care at higher rates due to discrimination and structural exclusion. For decades, racist exclusions in federal policy—influenced by racism and xenophobia in mainstream discourse—have contributed to this insecurity. 

Anti-immigrant exclusions in federal policy needlessly increase economic insecurity and hardship for millions of people who call the U.S. home. About 14 percent of people in the U.S. are immigrants, and roughly a quarter of children live with an immigrant parent. Many of these families are harmed by exclusions from government supports—evidenced by the disproportionate rates of food insecurity and financial hardship among immigrant families, especially Black and Brown immigrant families.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996—fueled by racist and xenophobic rhetoric—is at the root of many anti-immigrant exclusions seen throughout cash assistance, food assistance, health care coverage, and other public benefits programs today. As a result, almost one million immigrants immediately lost access to benefits, and in the nearly three decades since, millions more immigrant families—including U.S. citizen children and spouses—continue to be excluded. 

These anti-immigrant exclusions, including PRWORA’s five-year waiting period or “bar,” have become the norm for federal programs and policies since then. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Child Tax Credit (CTC), and other newer programs exclude some immigrant families. Certain states have passed policies that are even more exclusionary to immigrants than required by federal policy. Complex webs of eligibility rules across federal and state programs discourage immigrant families from seeking out cash, food, and health supports—even if the family is eligible. For example, some parents who are not eligible may not enroll their eligible children in a program due to confusion or fear. Families can also unknowingly gain or lose eligibility for crucial supports by moving across state lines. 

Our public benefits programs and services—including cash assistance, food assistance, and health coverage—are vital, foundational supports from which immigrant families have been excluded for too long. To achieve a more equitable and prosperous society that is better equipped to weather future crises, it is imperative that policymakers restore public benefits eligibility for immigrants.


  • Federal policymakers should end PRWORA’s anti-immigrant exclusions, including the five-year bar. The anti-immigrant exclusions created by PRWORA in 1996 deny certain lawfully-present immigrants access to public benefits that support healthy families and strong communities. PRWORA’s exclusions increase economic insecurity and hunger and threaten our country’s health, particularly during public health crises. Ending PRWORA’s exclusions will restore access to benefits and services like health care that will help ensure that all families—regardless of race, ethnicity, or citizenship status—have the ability to meet their basic needs. In addition to ending the five-year bar and other exclusions originated by PRWORA, federal legislation should ensure that state policymakers cannot create new barriers to benefits. Certain legislative proposals, such as the LIFT the BAR Act of 2021, would remove barriers created by PRWORA, including the five-year waiting period for access to public benefits such as Medicaid, CHIP, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The proposal would also eliminate state-imposed restrictions on qualified immigrants and their families and protect flexibility for states and localities to provide additional public benefits to immigrant communities.
  • Federal policymakers should reverse health care exclusions and barriers. CHIP, Medicaid, and ACA marketplace policies that make it harder for immigrant families to access medical care jeopardize our society’s well-being and our economy’s growth. Policymakers should remove restrictions on access to CHIP and health care through the ACA that exclude a large swath of children and adults based on their immigration status. Policymakers should also reverse the five-year waiting periods to access CHIP and Medicaid. 
  • Federal policymakers should permanently expand the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and include immigrant children among those eligible. Due to significant barriers, including language accessibility, wage theft, and labor market discrimination, immigrant families experience more economic instability than non-immigrant families. A permanent CTC expansion will provide long-lasting economic stability for immigrant families, enabling increased investment in children’s futures and even greater contributions to a thriving, equitable economy. Policymakers should broaden the CTC’s eligibility criteria to include children with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs).