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Access to Disaster Benefits for Immigrants without Status

December 3, 2012

Author: Barbara Weiner

Immigrants Without Status and Access to Disaster Benefits

An exception to the requirement that immigrants must generally be in a particular legal status to be eligible for federal public benefits is made in the case of “short term, non-cash, in kind emergency disaster relief.” Thus emergency shelters for victims displaced by Hurricane Sandy, places where people can go to keep warm, and of course food pantries and soup kitchens are open to all. 

Disaster Relief from FEMA

Unfortunately, many of the Individual Assistance programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are only open to U.S. citizens or noncitizens with a “qualified alien” status as defined in federal law.  Programs restricted to those in a qualifying immigration status include cash assistance, rental assistance and transitional shelter assistance.  Noncitizens who are eligible to apply for help under these program because they meet FEMA’s citizenship status requirements include the following:

  • lawful permanent residents,
  • refugees, asylees, and individuals granted withholding of deportation/removal
  • Cuban/Haitian Entrants (Cubans and Haitians who entered the US with parole status at any time after April 1980, regardless of their current status)
  • Certified victims of trafficking
  • Individuals granted parole for a period of one year or more
  •  Battered spouses or children of US citizens or lawful permanent residents who are in the process of petitioning the immigration service.

Nevertheless, mixed status households in need of disaster relief are eligible to apply for FEMA programs as long as the household has at least one member who is a U.S. citizen or who is in a qualifying immigration status.  This is true even if it is only a child in the household who meets the citizenship status requirements. The Social Security number of the eligible household member(s) will have to be provided.  Ineligible noncitizens who are making the application on behalf of eligible family members need not provide any information about their own status. 

Disaster Unemployment Benefits (DUA) available to an unemployed worker who is in one of the statuses listed above and to any noncitizen who is legally authorized to work. To be eligible for DUA, the person’s unemployment must be directly related to the disaster.  For example, an individual can be eligible for DUA if their workplace was damaged by the hurricane or transportation to the job is not available on account of the storm.  Even someone who wasn’t working at the time of the storm but was about to take a new job can get DUA if the job was made unavailable because of the storm.

The time for applying for DUA has been extended to February 4, 2013.  Individuals should call 1-888-8124 to see if they’re eligible.

Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP)[1], WIC and School Meals:

Disaster related SNAP is designed to provide food assistance benefits to households that are not SNAP recipients at the time the disaster hits.  Because it is designed to alleviate the hardships caused by a disaster, it has a vastly streamlined application process.  Importantly, there are no immigration status restrictions in the DSNAP program.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) is currently working on the process for implementing DSNAP in the disaster declared areas.  However, the program cannot generally be put into place until commercial channels of food distribution are functioning again and people are able to purchase and prepare food at home.  Participation by the local districts in implementing DSNAP is a critical piece of making these benefits available. The counties that have been declared disaster areas and are eligible to run a DSNAP program include NYC, Nassau, Suffolk, Rockland, and Westchester.

The children in families who have lost their homes or are living in temporary shelters are categorically eligible for free school meals because they are homeless.  Children have access to the free school meal program regardless of their immigration status.

The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program is available to pregnant women and young children regardless of immigration status.  New York has received powdered and ready-to-use infant formula from FEMA as regular supply chains recover from the storm.   At this time, three regional food banks have been designated as receiving sites for the formula:

  • Harry Chapin Food Bank in Hauppague on Long Island;
  • Food Bank for NYC in the Bronx, and
  • Food Bank for Westchester in Elmsford.

Certain rules of the WIC program have also been relaxed in disaster areas.  Participants will be allowed to:

  • Partially redeem WIC checks if not all items are available,
  • Substitute certain foods if WIC brand or specified package sizes are not in stock and
  • Substitute ready-to-use infant formula in areas with water supply issues.

NY has also been granted exemptions in the designated areas to:

  • Mail checks if beneficiaries have transportation issues and can’t come to the WIC agency;
  • Certify applicants even if their child is not physically present at the WIC agency site, and
  • Tailor food packages to reflect the fact that some people do not have access to their homes or are experiencing power outages or water issues.

These are the most recent updates available as of December 3, 2012. 

Barbara Weiner

Senior Staff Attorney

Empire Justice Center, Albany, NY

[1] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is what the food stamp program is now called.


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