Accessing Resources: Public benefits
In recognition of the economic hardship that is often imposed by sexual and domestic violence, the federal government has lifted many of the restrictions on immigrant survivors’ access to public benefits.
The federal laws that govern public benefits specify that programs and services “necessary to protect life and safety” must be available to everyone, regardless of immigration status. Sexual and domestic violence programs are recognized as “necessary to protect life and safety,” and therefore should serve any immigrant survivor.
Moreover, nonprofit charitable organizations have no obligation under these laws to either inquire about the immigration status of persons who seek services, or report this kind of information to immigration authorities.
Enhance your practice
1. Understand whether or not an immigrant survivor you are working with is eligible for public benefits.
There are certain eligibility requirements and advocacy considerations that apply to immigrant survivors who seek access to public benefits available in your state and community. And while advocates should not need to double as public benefits workers, gaining knowledge on immigrant survivors’ eligibility for public benefits is important. It gives advocates a clearer understanding of immigrants’ options, so that they can advocate for the full range of benefits for which survivors may qualify. For example, understanding the technical aspects of who is a “qualified immigrant” can help connect survivors with school social workers and housing advocacy organizations whose work includes linking people with public benefits and services.
· What is the survivor’s immigration status?
· What are the survivor’s options for immigration relief?
· Who perpetrated the violence?
· How long has the survivor been in the US?
· The state/community in which they reside.
· Does the survivor have children who are eligible for benefits, even those for which the survivor does not qualify?
· Can the survivor apply for benefits for themselves and their children without risking being reported to immigration authorities?
See “Prepare for intake” for additional practice guidance.
2. Accompany immigrant survivors when they apply for public benefits. As an advocate,
· You can provide invaluable support and insight to navigating a complex system.
· You are well-positioned to identify and intervene in instances where immigrant survivors are denied services and benefits to which they are entitled (including language access services; recognition and respect of their rights to confidentiality, privacy, and nondiscrimination, that permit full access to the application procedures; etc.), and inappropriate reports to immigration law enforcement.
· Your institutional power permits you to do necessary individual advocacy, and also systems and policy advocacy that can help establish safety and security for all immigrant survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
3. Remember that federally-funded services designated as “necessary to protect life or safety” and services provided by nonprofit charitable organizations are available to all immigrants. These services can be critical to many immigrant survivors who do not qualify for certain public benefits, including those who are undocumented and those who choose to live with the aggressor.
4. Remember that only the federal government regulates immigration; and that state courts and immigration court are mutually exclusive.
In order to qualify for benefits, applicants may need to establish that they are state residents. State residency determination is not the same as immigration status determination. For example:
· Undocumented immigrants can establish that they are state residents for purposes of securing benefits such as emergency Medicaid or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
· But for a small group of immigrants - those who are present in the US on certain non-immigrant visas (visitors, students, or other temporary visas), who are required to maintain residence abroad – it is important to ensure that declaring state residency will not affect their current immigration status, their ability to adjust their immigration status, or their ability to re-enter the US temporarily sometime in the future. Any survivor who has questions about whether declaring state residency could affect their immigration status on one of these types of visas should consult with an immigration attorney.
In all cases, however, state benefit agencies are not in a position to advise applicants about their immigration situation.
5. Ensure that immigrant survivors are aware that if their life circumstances change – their immigration status changes or they have a child, for example – their abilities to access benefits may also change. Therefore, it remains critical that advocates assure immigrant survivors that sexual and domestic violence program services are always available, now and in the future, regardless of whether or not another incident of abuse occurs.
This section of the Toolkit provides information, resources, and practice guidance on the following subjects to help you navigate public benefits systems and assist immigrant survivors to utilize them:
· Immigrant-specific eligibility requirements for public benefits
· Verification and reporting process benefits workers must use to determine eligibility
· The different classes of public benefits, which include:
o federal means-tested public benefits;
o federal public benefits;
o state public benefits;
o services necessary to protect life and safety; and
· Services provided by nonprofit organizations that receive federal funds
 See Interim Guidance on Verification of Citizenship, Qualified Alien Status and Eligibility under Title IV of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Attorney General Order No. 2129.97, 62 Federal Register 61,334 (November 17, 1997), Section D, for definitions of “nonprofit” and “charitable.”
 Olavarria, C., Baran, A., Orloff, L. & Huang, G. (2013). Public benefits access for battered immigrant women and children. In K. Sullivan & L. Orloff (Eds.) Breaking Barriers: A Complete Guide to Legal Rights and Resources for Battered Immigrants. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.
 Fata, S., Orloff, L.E. & Drew, M. (2013). Access to programs and services that can help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. In L. Orloff (Ed.), Empowering Survivors: Legal Rights of Immigrant Victims of Sexual Assault. National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project, Washington College of Law at American University, and Legal Momentum.