CalFresh for Non-Citizens: What You Need to Know

CalFresh is a program for low-income families to receive aid in purchasing nutritionally dense foods. The eligibility for citizenship and immigration requirements state that certain non-citizens, such as those admitted to the United States for humanitarian reasons, and those admitted for permanent residence, may be eligible for CalFresh benefits.  For a look at the different aspects of CalFresh eligibility for non-citizens, read the following sections:
•    General CalFresh eligibility requirements for lawfully-present immigrants
•    CalFresh eligibility and immigration status
•    Specific rules for CalFresh eligibility for non-citizens


General CalFresh Eligibility Requirements for Lawfully-Present Immigrants

In general, requirements for CalFresh in California for most lawfully-present immigrants include that an applicant:
• Has lived in the U.S. in a qualified status for five years
• Or, is blind or receiving disability-related assistance or benefits, regardless of entry  date Or, are children under 18 years of age who are qualified and lawfully admitted for  permanent residence under the Immigration and Nationalization Act
• Or, are Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LPRs) with credit for 40  qualifying work quarters
•  Or, is an elderly person born on or before 8/22/31 who lawfully resided in the U.S.  on 8/22/96
• Or, is an individual who is lawfully residing in California and is on active duty with the  military. 

Eligible household members can receive CalFresh benefits even if other members of the household are not eligible. Non-citizens that are in the U.S. temporarily, such as students and tourists, are not eligible, much like undocumented individuals are not eligible. A CalFresh applicant’s immigration status and sponsored non-citizenship may need to be verified by a CalFresh worker in some cases.

California also has a program for immigrants who have not lived in the U.S. for five years, enabling them to have lawful permanent residence status or qualified immigration status if they meet all other program eligibility criteria. This CalFresh program is known as the California Food Assistance Program (CFAP). 

CalFresh Eligibility and Immigration Status

Being a CalFresh beneficiary will not affect an applicant’s immigration status or the immigration status of their family. A petitioner may apply for food stamps for their family without applying for themselves. The Department of Social Services will not share any applicant information with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This includes information needed to ascertain the eligibility and benefits for other members of the household. Immigration officials could not use this information to deport someone unless there is a criminal violation involved.

Unlike receiving other types of cash assistance, receiving CalFresh benefits does not make an immigrant a public charge. The immigrant applicant will not be denied entry to the United States or denied lawful permanent residence or a green card because they receive CalFresh benefits. An immigrant’s use of CalFresh is not relevant in deciding whether they can become a US citizen. An exception to this occurs when CalFresh benefits were received or used fraudulently—for example, if the immigrant did not tell the truth about where he or she lived, or how they earned income.

Specific Rules for CalFresh Eligibility for Non-Citizens

A CalFresh claimant may be eligible for benefits if they are a “qualified” immigrant. This includes Permanent Legal Residents (holders of green cards), refugees, those granted asylum, people granted withholding of deportation or removal, Cuban/Haitian entrants, individuals paroled into the U.S. for at least a year by immigration authorities, conditional entrants (temporary green cards), and certain victims of domestic violence. Victims of human trafficking (T visa) and applicants for U visa/interim relief are also eligible for CalFresh. Two groups of non-qualified immigrants who may qualify for CalFresh include certain Native Americans born abroad and certain Hmong or Highland Laotian tribal members (related to participation in the Vietnam War).

A claimant’s children may be eligible even if the claimant is not. Candidates may apply for CalFresh for their kids (under age 22) who were born in the United States, are permanent residents or qualify for special immigration status. The claimant will have to show proof of his or her income and resources to determine the amount of the CalFresh benefits. 

Regarding sponsorship, a claimant can apply on behalf of children under 18 years of age without supplying any information about sponsors. Immigrants with sponsors can still receive CalFresh benefits if their sponsor’s income is very low, or if they would go hungry or homeless without assistance (taking into account any money the family actually receives) or if they are victims of domestic violence, or if they have credit for ten years of work history in the United States.

Historically at the federal level, participation in SNAP is significantly lower for non-citizen heads of households and other family members compared to citizen heads of households and other family members. Because the rules for participation for non-citizens in CalFresh/SNAP can be complex, many non-citizens do not apply for CalFresh benefits due to lack of knowledge about the program rules. Other times, they lack awareness that the program is available to non-citizens. In addition, there are other non-citizens who have little or no proficiency in English, who may assume that they cannot apply for the program because they do not speak English. Local offices have applications in many languages to make the process easier for these potential beneficiaries.