Complicated eligibility rules, burdensome enrollment processes, and concerns about mistreatment during interactions with staff keep many people from enrolling in safety net programs. But research finds that immigrants face additional barriers to enrollment, including lack of language access and fears of immigration-related consequences, on top of eligibility restrictions that prohibit many from qualifying.
Why this matters
Given states’ roles in financing and delivering many safety net programs, state- and local-level policies and practices can contribute to how well programs meet the needs of state populations, including immigrants and other members of immigrant families.
What we found
- Immigrant families in North Carolina face the universal structural barriers that many program applicants confront in navigating program enrollment in addition to unique challenges specific to their immigration status and language backgrounds.
- Broad structural challenges include limited awareness of available supports, transportation and scheduling hurdles, challenges communicating with agencies, and technology barriers.
- Additional challenges specific to immigrant families include the following:
- Language access, especially related to diverse language needs and lack of resources and in-person assistance in languages beyond Spanish, as well as shortages of linguistically competent staff at state and county agencies
- Immigration-related fears and hesitancy, including fear of exposure to immigration enforcement, local immigration enforcement risks, and concerns and misinformation about public charge
- Complex immigrant eligibility rules and documentation challenges, including confusion in mixed-status families and unique documentation barriers for proving employment and identification
- Discriminatory treatment from safety net program personnel based on language preference, race and ethnicity, or immigration status
- Immigrant-serving community-based organizations and community health workers were highlighted as playing an especially important role in supporting families’ safety net access, though they face key challenges related to capacity and funding to support immigrant clients.
- State- and county-level Department of Health and Human Services agencies supporting North Carolina’s immigrant families also have challenges supporting immigrants, related to staff capacity, variation across the state in resources, and difficulty staying up to date on changing rules and populations.
- This research identified a range of solutions for state and county Health and Human Services agencies that could most effectively address these challenges and improve safety net benefit access for immigrant families, including ideas for the state and counties in addressing mistrust and immigration-related concerns, simplifying complex enrollment and recertification processes, removing language access barriers, and improving connections across various safety net programs.
- Priority solutions include customized engagement and outreach by government agencies, supporting language access needs beyond Spanish, partnership with immigrant-serving CBOs and community health workers, diversifying Health and Human Services agency staff, simplifying program enrollment and retention processes, and state action to expand eligibility to additional immigrant populations.
How we did it
Findings are based on 42 interviews with stakeholders at the state level and in four counties across the state, as well as four focus groups (in Spanish, Swahili, and Hmong) with members of immigrant families who have experience with safety net programs in the state.