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GAO: Almost No State Ensures Taxpayers Paid Back if Sponsored Noncitizens Collect Welfare Benefits

May 29, 2009

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report finds that, contrary to the intent of the 1996 welfare reform law, “certain sponsored noncitizens may receive means-tested public benefits based on their income and assets alone, even though they have sponsors who signed legally enforceable affidavits agreeing to support them when they became permanent residents in this country.” (page 27)  In addition to potentially permitting more sponsored noncitizens to be eligible for various Federal welfare benefits, the report notes taxpayers are not being protected from the costs of paying those benefits, as the 1996 welfare reform law required: “Although federal law states that benefit granting agencies must administratively pursue sponsor repayment, DHS regulations on affidavits of support, as well as some federal benefit agency guidance, suggest that administrative pursuit of sponsor repayment is optional.” (page 22) 

The report released May 29, 2009, titled “Sponsored Noncitizens and Public Benefits: More Clarity in Federal Guidance and Better Access to Federal Information Could Improve Implementation of Income Eligibility Rules,” is the first comprehensive review of how the noncitizen sponsorship policies have been implemented, and their effect.  The GAO report was addressed to Rep. John Linder (R-GA), the Ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, which has jurisdiction over welfare programs.  To view the full report, click here.  

The landmark 1996 welfare reform law and related legislation limited the availability of Federal means tested benefits such as welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF), Medicaid, food stamps, and Supplemental Security Income for most noncitizens.  The law also included specific restrictions on the benefit eligibility of noncitizens allowed to enter the U.S. on the strength of pledges of support from sponsors.  Most often family members, sponsors are required to sign a legally binding affidavit of support that includes a pledge of financial support and repayment of benefits the noncitizen may receive after entering the U.S.  The income of sponsors is also supposed to be added to the income of the noncitizen when he or she applies for means-tested benefits, under a process known as “deeming.” 
Rep. Linder stated:  “This report raises serious questions about agency leadership in following and implementing Federal law when it comes to noncitizen eligibility for benefits, and especially protecting taxpayers from the cost of benefits paid to these noncitizens, as current Federal law requires.  Benefit-paying agencies need to make sure that when these noncitizens collect welfare benefits, sponsors and not taxpayers pick up the tab.  As we review the nation’s welfare programs in the next year, this GAO report will provide valuable information for making needed improvements.”

Key Findings of GAO Report

  • “The total number of sponsored noncitizens that apply for these benefits is also unknown, in part because most federal benefit agencies do not collect this data. However, during 2007, TANF, Medicaid, and SNAP administering agency staff used DHS’s SAVE system to verify the noncitizen status of approximately 473,000 applicants who were sponsored—a step typically taken when noncitizens apply for benefits. This is approximately 11 percent of the estimated sponsored noncitizen population in the United States as of January 1, 2007, and it is the best proxy available for the number of sponsored noncitizen applicants for these three programs.” (pages 9-10)
  • “When sponsored noncitizens do apply for benefits, staff at most of the local offices we visited during our site visits told us that very few of these applications for TANF, Medicaid, and SNAP progress to the point where local staff deem sponsor income. The perceived low incidence of deeming was also supported by state administering agency officials through our survey, as 69 percent indicated that cases involving sponsor deeming had seldom or never occurred in their states during the past 2 years.” (page 11)
  • “(S)tate or local officials in each of the five states we visited reported difficulties accessing DHS information needed to determine whether a noncitizen applicant has a sponsor, and 65 percent of agencies administering these benefits nationwide reported that more specific policies on using SAVE in determining sponsorship would be useful. Agencies’ difficulties in using SAVE could leave them vulnerable to fraud or improper payments because SAVE is a key mechanism for verifying eligibility and sponsorship status.” (page 20) 
  • A minority of States have sponsor repayment policies (page 23):

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  • “Officials from only two states reported in our survey that they have pursued sponsor repayment of TANF, Medicaid, or SNAP benefits. Similarly, SSA officials told us that neither its regional nor field offices have pursued sponsor repayment of SSI benefits.” (page 24)