February 13, 2023

This blog is Part 2 of a two-part series focused on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and eligible immigrant families. The following blog examines opportunities to address barriers that impede immigrant access to SNAP. Part 1 reviews key SNAP participation data trends and lifts up the importance of the new Biden administration public charge rule as a critical step in helping to reverse SNAP participation decreases among eligible immigrant households.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is our nation’s first defense against hunger and plays a critical role in reducing hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and improving family security, health, employment, and other outcomes.

Too few eligible immigrants and mixed status families participate in this vital program—meaning that they’re missing out on a program that can help them thrive and generate needed local economic activity.

Fear related to how SNAP will affect a participant’s immigration status is a key driver that chills participation but it is not the only factor. Eligible immigrants and mixed status households report not participating in SNAP due to a range of factors, including inaccurate information about the program, complicated program rules, language access barriers, discrimination, and stigma.

SNAP is available to certain lawfully present noncitizens, including refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, and children under 18 who are lawful permanent residents. With few exceptions, lawful permanent resident adults still must wait five years before being eligible for SNAP. In addition to meeting status requirements, immigrants must also meet program eligibility criteria such as income and asset tests.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s 2022 final public charge rule represents an important action for easing immigration-related fears about SNAP. However, more work is needed to ensure that all immigrants and their families can access the benefits of SNAP.

The following are three ways to support immigrant access to SNAP:

  1. Promote the importance of SNAP and the fact that eligible immigrants can participate without immigration-related concerns:
    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a new webpage for noncitizens and their families that reinforces that families should access SNAP and other federal nutrition programs for which they are eligible. This helpful page provides a quick look at the range of programs, key eligibility information for noncitizens and family members, and resources on how to apply for benefits.
    To spread the word that applying for or receiving benefits from SNAP does not make someone a public charge or otherwise affect one’s ability to change their immigration status, the website features helpful resources such as a joint letter from USDA and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). For background on public charge and ways to counter its chilling impact, see Protecting Immigrant Families Coalition’s (PIF) partner toolkit.
  2. Partner with organizations immigrants trust to provide accurate information on SNAP and help address language access barriers: Partnerships with trusted organizations and community partners are key to providing accurate information and application assistance in the immigrant’s preferred language. Such organizations will be more familiar with difficult scenarios some immigrants may face such as (1) how to report seasonal labor, (2) apply for a citizen child when the parent is not eligible, or (3) address immigration-related concerns.
    Trusted community partners also know what messaging resonates and appropriate terms for translations tailored to their community, as well as what misinformation might be circulating. UnidosUS’s Comprando Rico y Sano (Buying Healthy and Flavorful Foods), led by community health workers (promotores de salud), is an example of this type of a partnership for Spanish-speaking families. Of note, USDA’s FY 2024 Priority Areas for State Outreach Plans include outreach to immigrant and mixed status families and households with limited English proficiency, and encouragement for the state to collaborate with community partners.
  3. Push for SNAP policy improvements, and state-funded enhancements: Moving forward, advocates can help connect more immigrants to SNAP by working with the Biden administration and Congress to rescind arbitrary and harsh eligibility rules that terminate, impede, or undercut access for the many people who are struggling to make ends meet, and that exacerbate racial and health inequities. Congress and the Biden administration should rescind the five-year bar that disqualifies many adults with legal permanent resident status from receiving SNAP and extend SNAP eligibility to all lawfully residing immigrants. Learn more about the LIFT the Bar Act from PIF’s partner toolkit and Resource Hub.More states can offer state food assistance programs to certain noncitizens who are ineligible for SNAP due to federal changes to noncitizen eligibility made in the 1990’s. Currently, six states (California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington) use the existing SNAP infrastructure and state funds to deliver a SNAP-like benefit to certain SNAP-ineligible immigrants. To further expand access for people ineligible for SNAP, California recently became the first state to make additional improvements by using state funds to provide food benefits to adults 55 years of age and older, regardless of immigration status.


Integral to the success of all of these actions is the inclusion of immigrants with lived hunger and poverty experience among the experts engaged in designing messaging, outreach strategies, policies, and workable solutions.

Ultimately, this work to end hunger among immigrant families requires that our nation create a more just immigration system that includes a pathway to citizenship. Now is the time to ramp up work to ensure no one in the U.S. goes hungry no matter where they were born.

Learn more about public charge, noncitizen eligibility for SNAP, and successful outreach and partnership strategies, on USDA’s webpage on nutrition programs for eligible noncitizens, these webinar recordings 10/20/22 FRAC webinar, 12/19/22 Feeding America webinar (Password: DkcPUqW3), and PIF’s resource page.