Immigrant eligibility for CalFresh benefits

Overview of immigrant eligibility in California

In California, qualified immigrants, victims of trafficking, “U” visa applicants or holders, and a few other groups can get CalFresh benefits. Two programs allow this. The regular, federally funded CalFresh Program, and the state-funded California Food Assistance Program (CFAP).  The regular CalFresh Program restricts CalFresh eligibility to immigrants who fall into certain categories. In contrast, CFAP is open to otherwise qualified immigrants.  See California Food Assistance Program for details about CFAP.

Aside from who is eligible, the regular CalFresh Program and CFAP differ only in who pays for the benefits. The federal government pays for CalFresh, and the state pays for CFAP. For a listing of immigrant eligibility in California’s SNAP program, see the somewhat overwhelming, 187-page CDSS “Noncitizen Eligibility Reference Guide,” published as ACIN I-102-10.

Immigrants (and others) who do not want to get benefits for themselves may “opt out.” [See ACL 23-57.]  This happens automatically if the person fails to provide a Social Security number (SSN). [MPP § 63-402.22.] They will still be part of any household with which they buy and cook food, but they will not get benefits. They will be treated as excluded household members, and a pro-rata portion of their income is counted against the rest of the household.

Federal SNAP requirements

Many qualified immigrants can get federal SNAP benefits (regular CalFresh benefits) if they are otherwise eligible. The general rule is that immigrant adults are eligible for get regular CalFresh benefits after they have been in the United States in qualified-immigrant status for five years. That said, some immigrants are eligible for benefits right away. [8 U.S.C. § 1612(a)(2), 7 C.F.R. § 273.4.(a)(6)(ii).] Children, people in certain humanitarian immigration categories (such as refugees and asylees, and victims of trafficking), people with military connections, people with credit for 10 years of work history in the United States, and persons receiving disability benefits, are eligible right away. See, generally, FNS Guidance.

Most legal immigrants must (1) be a qualified immigrant, AND (2) meet a condition that allows the qualified immigrant to get federal CalFresh benefits. The federal SNAP regulations provide that if a person is originally found to be an eligible immigrant, a subsequent adjustment to a more limited status does not override the eligibility. If the eligibility expires, however, the agency must determine if the person is eligible under another status. [7 C.F.R. § 273.4(a)(5)(iv).]

Who is a “qualified immigrant”?

Qualified immigrants are:

  • Lawful permanent residents (LPRs), including Amerasian immigrants; or
  • Refugees, asylees, persons granted withholding of deportation, conditional entry (prior to April 1, 1980), or paroled for at least one year; or
  • Cuban/Haitian entrants; or
  • Adults or minors subject to severe trafficking, or their spouse/parents/children; or
  • Certain battered spouses and children.
  • Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrants

This is not a comprehensive list, for a complete listing see the federal regulations. [8 U.S.C. § 1641(b), (c); 7 C.F.R. § 273.4(a)(6)(i).]

There is a brief period of SNAP eligibility for Iraqis and Afghanis employed by the United States, as translators and interpreters, with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) who can qualify for CalFresh benefits. The time period for eligibility is six to eight months depending on eligibility criteria. [ACL 08-35.]

People in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are not eligible for CalFresh or CFAP.

Qualified immigrants must also meet ONE of the following conditions to receive regular CalFresh benefits:

  • Have been in the United States as a qualified immigrant for five years (the years do not have to be consecutive); or
  • Be under 18; or
  • Be receiving disability-related assistance (as defined in the CalFresh Program; see the section about how “disabled” is defined); or
  • Have one of the following immigration statuses:
    • Refugee
    • Asylee
    • Person granted withholding of deportation or removal
    • Cuban or Haitian entrant
    • Victim of trafficking
    • Amerasian
    • Lawful permanent resident (LPR) who used to have one of the above immigration statuses
    • Parolee under Immigration and Naturalization Act section 212(d)(5) with a duration of parole of at least one year (a DT code is sufficient verification of parolee status, see ACL 24-27); or
  • Be a veteran of the United States military, or a member of the United States military, or a spouse or child of a person in the military or a veteran; or
  • Be a lawful permanent resident (LPR) with at least 40 quarters of work in the United States; or
  • Be a member of a Hmong or Laotian tribe that fought with the United States military during the Vietnam War, who is lawfully residing in the United States; or
  • On August 22, 1996, have been 65 years or older and lawfully residing in the United States (i.e., born before August 22, 1931);
  • Be an American Indian with certain rights to cross the border between the United States and Canada or Mexico; or
  • Be a noncitizen national (born in American Samoa or Swain’s Island).

[8 U.S.C. § 1612(a)(2); 7 C.F.R. § 273.4.]

In addition, the following categories of legal immigrants do NOT have to meet the qualified-immigrant test to receive regular CalFresh benefits:

  • Certain Hmong or Highland Laotians who are lawfully present in the United States, with their spouses and children;
  • Certain cross-border American Indians with treaty rights to cross between Canada or Mexico and the United States; and
  • Victims of a severe form of trafficking of persons, who are eligible to the same extent as refugees.

[8 U.S.C. 1612(a)(2)(K); 7 C.F.R. § 273.4.]

Eligibility of Afghan immigrants

Afghan Humanitarian Parolees, and their spouse, children, parents and legal guardian, who are admitted into the United States between July 31, 2021 and September 30, 2023 are eligible for CalFresh.  They are not subject to the five year waiting period for refugees. They are eligible until March 31, 2023.  [ACWDL, January 30, 2023.]

Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders, Special Immigrant Conditional Permanent Residents, and Afghan Special Immigrant Lawful Permanent Residents are eligible for public benefits to the same extent as refugees if their status is established between July 31, 2021 and September 30, 2023.  [ACWDL, January 30, 2023.]

CDSS has provided an updated list of acceptable verification of status and an updated chart of acceptable verification of status.  [ACWDL, December 14, 2022.]

Eligibility of Ukranian immigrants

Ukranians and Non-Ukranian individuals paroled into the United States because of the war between February 24, 2022 and September 30, 2023 are eligible for CalFresh to the same extent as refugees.

A spouse, or child of an Ukranian or Non-Ukranian individuals paroled into the United States because of the war between February 24, 2022 and September 30, 2023 is eligible for CalWORKs, CalFresh, MediCal, SSI, and Office of Refugee Resettlement programs.

A parent, legal guardian, or primary caregiver of an unaccompanied refugee minor or an unaccompanied child who is an Ukranian or Non-Ukranian individuals paroled into the United States because of the war between February 24, 2022 and September 30, 2023 is eligible for CalWORKs, CalFresh, MediCal, SSI, and Office of Refugee Resettlement programs. These individual are eligible for benefits until the end of their parole term.

For CalFresh, Ukranians and Non-Ukranian individuals paroled into the United States because of the war between February 24, 2022 and September 30, 2023 are eligible for CalFresh to the same extent as refugees.  They are eligible effective May 21, 2022.  Counties should reach out to people denied under prior policy to inform them that they now may be eligible.  For CalFresh, the household must verify that they have applied for a Social Security Number or show good cause for failure to provide a Social Security Number.

Immigrants who entered the United States after December 19, 1997 may have sponsors who are legally required to support them. In some cases, if the immigrant applies for SNAP benefits, the welfare office may consider the sponsor’s income and resources as if these were available to the immigrant. This consideration is called “sponsor deeming.”” The deeming requirements apply only to some lawful permanent residents whose sponsor has signed a legally binding affidavit of support on or after December 19, 1997 (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Form I-864).

There are important exceptions to these deeming rules. [7 C.F.R. § 273.4(c); 8 C.F.R. §§ 213a and 299; FNS Guidance, page 31; MPP § 63-403.2.] (For related information, see the section about treatment of resources of a sponsored non-citizen.) There is no deeming if the immigrant is indigent. [See ACL 11-06 (indigency exception and required verification).]

The deeming rules for CFAP are more generous than the deeming rules for regular CalFresh benefits.

Verification of immigration status

The CalFresh office is required to verify the immigration status of individuals who are applying for CalFresh benefits, but may not require applicants to provide information about the citizenship or immigration status of any non-applicant. The CalFresh office may not deny benefits to an applicant because a non-applicant family or household member has not disclosed her citizenship or immigrant status. [FNS Guidance, page 22.]

If an applicant cannot provide acceptable verification of U.S. citizenship and the household can provide a reasonable explanation for the lack of verification, the CalFresh office must accept a signed statement, under penalty of perjury, from a third party. [FNS Guidance, page 23.]  Counties cannot limit the types of acceptable documentation of immigration status.  [ACWDL, December 2, 2021.]  ACWDL December 2, 2021 contains a list of acceptable immigration verification documentation for Afghan entrants.

Public Charge

Public charge is the rule that it is more difficult for people who receive public benefits or might receive public benefits enter United States or to obtain lawful permanent resident status. The current public charge rule does not apply to food benefits including CalFresh. [See ACL 23-57.]