The blog of the Urban Institute
July 28, 2021

How Federal and State Leaders Can Reach Immigrants and Build Their Trust in the Safety Net

In recent years, restrictive immigration policies, such as expansions to the public charge rule, have led many immigrant families to avoid safety net programs. Although the Biden administration has stated that the expanded public charge rule is no longer in effect, confusion and misinformation around whether use of safety net programs may affect applicants’ future immigration prospects could continue to deter immigrant families from accessing the benefits they are eligible for.

The transition from an administration with restrictive immigration policies to one that has a more welcoming stance offers a chance to better understand immigrant families’ attitudes about accessing the safety net. New Urban Institute research based on data collected during the transition between federal administrations identifies the extent of immigrants’ hardships and concerns about using safety net benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Findings from this research can inform promising strategies to counteract fears and help ensure immigrant families’ needs are met. 

Adults in low-income immigrant families were deeply affected during the pandemic

The pandemic had a disproportionate effect on families of color, including many in immigrant families. Overrepresentation in low-wage and essential industries increased immigrant families’ risk of exposure to the virus, and lower rates of health insurance coverage among noncitizens increased their potential health and economic precarity. 

Our analysis of Urban’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, a national survey conducted in December 2020, found about half (51.8 percent) of adults in immigrant families with low incomes reported the pandemic negatively affected their or a family member’s employment, and similar shares worried about being able to pay medical costs or their rent or mortgage. These hardships extended to adults in immigrant families with children, as 28.0 percent reported their family faced food insecurity in the previous 12 months, and almost 30 percent reported that someone in their family had missed out on needed health care because of cost or were having trouble paying medical bills. 

Eligibility restrictions and immigration concerns keep some immigrant families from accessing help 

Safety net programs that help families meet basic needs, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are key supports for families to overcome economic inequality. Urban research finds policies in the American Rescue Plan Act, including pandemic-related unemployment insurance benefits, expansions to SNAP, and monthly advance payments of the increased child tax credit, would significantly reduce the 2021 poverty rate, particularly for people of color.

But many immigrant families were excluded from early rounds of pandemic-relief legislation. Although recent iterations expanded mixed-status families’ access to economic impact payments, many immigrants continue to be excluded from federally funded safety net programs.

Beyond eligibility restrictions, concerns around immigration status factor into immigrants’ decisions to participate in public programs for which they or a family member may be eligible. Despite the hardships they faced during the pandemic, more than 1 in 4 adults in immigrant families with low incomes (27.5 percent) reported they or a family member avoided noncash benefits or other help with basic needs because of immigration concerns in 2020. Adults in immigrant families with children were more likely to report such avoidance than their counterparts without children.

Avoidance of safety net programs—which was also occurring before the public charge expansion was finalized—will make it more challenging for these families to recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

How to build trust with immigrant families and diminish immigration-related fears 

More than many states, California has taken steps toward expanding the safety net to more immigrants. Most recently, lawmakers decided to expand Medi-Cal eligibility to undocumented adults ages 50 and older, beginning in 2022. Interviews with immigrant families and service providers in California demonstrate that changing immigration policies, including reversal of the expanded public charge rule, could encourage confidence in accessing safety net programs. With clear and direct messaging, federal and state leaders can reiterate that the public charge expansion has been reversed and show immigrant families they can safely seek benefits for which they or family members qualify. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently took this step with an informational bulletin that emphasized (PDF) Medicaid benefits have no bearing on immigration status. The bulletin also reminded states of their responsibility to safeguard applicant and beneficiary information.

Still, improving safety net access depends on reaching immigrant families and building trust with them. Other recommendations stemming from our California study include the following: 

  • Expand partnerships with culturally specific organizations to develop strategies for outreach and enrollment, by using existing networks to gather input on language access and engagement strategies and by contracting directly with such organizations for translations, outreach, education, and enrollment.
  • Tailor outreach strategies to the sources of information and places that immigrant families rely on. Multiple approaches can be leveraged, such as engagement with trusted government and community leaders, in-language media, and distribution of information in commonly frequented spaces in communities.
  • Develop enrollment strategies that resonate with immigrant families by maximizing referrals to reach those who are unaware of programs, matching families to services based on need, limiting the collection of sensitive information, and connecting families to legal aid resources that can advise on how participation could affect immigration status.
  • Increase funding and capacity for enrollment staff who provide culturally and linguistically sensitive services that can support families through enrollment and beyond.

More research is needed to understand which specific messages resonate with immigrant families. More evidence on the experiences of Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander immigrants is also needed to understand the distinct barriers they face, given that this work has focused primarily on English and Spanish speakers. As the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic’s repercussions and many are still in need, federal and state policymakers can work to ensure worries based on immigration status do not deter immigrant families from seeking help for which they qualify.

Findings in this post draw from work with Urban Institute colleagues Sara McTarnaghan, Michael Karpman, and Genevieve M. Kenney.


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SAN LORENZO, CA - APRIL 9: Christian (left) and his wife Monze (right) were laid off from restaurant jobs in mid-March and not qualified to receive unemployment because they are undocumented immigrants as they walk with their 9 and 4 year old sons on Thursday, April 9, 2020, in San Lorenzo, Calif. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

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