Getting CalWORKs and Other Public Benefits

MAY 7, 2001

Many immigrant women and children are trapped in relationships that are physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive because they are afraid they might be deported if they leave the relationship. This pamphlet is written for the service provider, counselor, and immigration provider to explain which public benefits abused immigrants can secure to help support themselves and their children. For information on how abused immigrants can protect themselves by “Self-Petitioning” to get a green card, please see the pamphlet entitled, “Immigrants and Domestic Violence: How the Law Can Protect Women” and “Juvenile Immigrants and Domestic Violence: How the Law Can Protect Teens and Children.

My husband and I are undocumented immigrants, and my husband is abusing me. Can I get help so I can leave my abuser?

Yes. You can go to a battered woman’s shelter and get help regardless of your immigration status. In addition, you and your children can get the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants & Children (WIC), emergency Medi-Cal (including labor and delivery), family planning, prenatal care, the Childhood Disability and Prevention Program (CHDP), school lunches and breakfasts, and some other programs. These programs will not check your immigration status. In most counties, you can also get health care from clinics or in county facilities if you are low-income.

Can I get CalWORKs benefits to help support my children and me?

You can only get CalWORKs if you are a citizen, “qualified” immigrant, or “permanently residing in the United States under color of law” (PRUCOL). PRUCOL generally means that the INS knows you are in the United States and does not plan to deport/remove you. “Qualified immigrants” are:

  • lawful permanent residents (persons with green cards);
  • refugees, persons granted asylum, withholding of deportation/removal, or paroled into the U.S. for one year or more;
  • Cuban or Haitian entrants; and
  • certain abused immigrant spouses or children (see below for more details).

Even if you cannot get CalWORKs for yourself, you may be able to apply for CalWORKs on behalf of your children if they are citizens or eligible immigrants.

I am undocumented, but my abusive husband has his green card. Can I get CalWORKs?

You and your children may be able to get CalWORKs if

  • your husband filed a visa petition for you, or
  • you filed a visa petition for yourself (a “Self-Petition”) under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), or
  • you have applied for “cancellation of removal” under VAWA.

Even if you are not abused, you and your children may be able to get CalWORKs if your children have been abused and meet the requirements above.

Which immigration documents do I need to get CalWORKs?

You can show the welfare office that you have one of the following documents:INS Form I-797 indicating approval of an I-130 petition filed for a spouse or child of a U.S. citizen/lawful permanent resident (LPR), or adult son or daughter of an LPR;

  • INS Form I-797 or I-797C indicating approval or “prima facie” validity of an I-360 petition of a self-petitioning spouse/child of a U.S. citizen/LPR or widow/widower of a U.S. citizen;
  • an order or document from the Immigration Court or Board of Immigration Appeals granting suspension of deportation or cancellation of removal under VAWA; or
  • a document from the Immigration Court or Board of Immigration Appeals indicating a prima facie case for suspension of deportation or cancellation of removal under VAWA.

Children of battered spouses and parents of battered children who have these documents are also eligible for CalWORKs.

Note: There may be other documents that you can show in order to get benefits as a battered immigrant. Check with an immigration attorney for more information.

What if I can’t leave my husband until I get CalWORKs?

You can receive CalWORKs even if you are living with your abuser provided that you are financially eligible.

I am a qualified immigrant and need to escape my abuser. What kind of CalWORKs services can I get?

If you are eligible for CalWORKs, you can get childcare assistance and reimbursement for transportation-related expenses. In addition, CalWORKs participants who self-declare that they are victims of domestic violence should receive domestic violence supportive services, which may include emergency crisis services, counseling, free legal services, transitional housing, permanent housing assistance, and job training/placement. You can also get a waiver from the work requirements, time limits, educational requirements, paternity establishment, or child support cooperation requirements so that you can escape the abuse. But you need to ask for these waivers! These waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis for as long as necessary if you can show that meeting these requirements would make it more difficult to escape the abuse. See a welfare advocate to discuss what your rights are under this program. If you are not already receiving domestic violence services, the county should give you a referral when you apply for CalWORKs.

I am a conditional resident. My green card is only good for two years. Can I get CalWORKs to support my children and me?

Yes. However, if you have a sponsor, his/her income or property may be added to your income (“deemed”) for three years or longer, depending on when you got your green card. This rule could make your income too high to qualify for CalWORKs. But if your sponsor signed a “new” affidavit of support (I-864) there are some exceptions to this rule (see below).

My husband recently sponsored me to come to the U.S. and he is abusing me. Will the welfare office deny me CalWORKs because his income will be added to (“deemed” as) mine?

This depends on whether your husband signed a “new affidavit of support” (I-864) or a “traditional affidavit of support” (I-134).

If your husband signed a traditional affidavit of support (I-134), then his income will be added to yours during the 3-year period after you get your green card.

If your husband signed a new affidavit of support (I-864), then there are two exceptions to “deeming.” In these cases, your husband’s income will NOT be added to yours in determining whether you are eligible for CalWORKs:

  • Victims of domestic violence are exempt from “deeming” for at least 12 months when there is a substantial connection between the abuse and the victim’s need for benefits. You can get benefits beyond those 12 months if the INS or a court has found that you were abused.
  • If the welfare office decides that you will go hungry or homeless if you don’t get benefits, you can get benefits without “deeming” for up to 12 months.

If you meet one of the exceptions above, only the support you actually get from your sponsor is “deemed” to you. For example, if your husband is not giving you anything, then you will not have any income “deemed” as yours.

I am a refugee who is abused. Can I get CalWORKs to support my children or me?

Yes, you are a “qualified” immigrant and are eligible for CalWORKs. However, you should tell your worker about the abuse so that you can also get domestic violence treatment services and supportive services. This information will be kept confidential. See the question above for more information.

If my children and I are “qualified” immigrants, which other public benefits can we receive?

If you meet other program requirements, you may be eligible for full scope Medi-Cal, and /or General Assistance/General Relief. You may also be eligible for food stamps, Healthy Families, and the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI). The rules are different for each program and may depend on your immigration status, your age, when you entered the United States, whether you have a sponsor, and whether you or your husband worked in this country or served in the military. For more information, see the pamphlet, “Qualified Immigrants & Public Benefits in California.”

I am undocumented and I am afraid to apply for CalWORKs for my children, even though they are citizens or eligible immigrants. What should I know about this?

You never need to tell your worker that you are undocumented. If you are applying for CalWORKs for your children but are not trying to get benefits yourself, your worker should only ask whether your immigration status makes you eligible for CalWORKs. Simply tell her that you are “not an eligible immigrant” (“ineligible” does not mean the same thing as “undocumented”). That is all the agencies need to know. Agencies in three programs—CalWORKs, SSI, and public housing—must report you to the INS only if they know for a fact that you are in the country unlawfully (they cannot guess about your immigration status). No other agencies are required to report you. If anyone from these or other government agencies asks about your immigration status, be careful. You never need to tell anyone that you are undocumented.

My “Self Petition” under VAWA has been approved. Do I have to worry about “public charge” when I try to get my green card?

When it’s time for your green card interview, you will have to meet other requirements. These include that you have not engaged in criminal activity, that you have no serious health problems, drug abuse problem, or serious mental illness, and that you are not likely to become a public charge in the future.

Public charge is a term used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and consular officers. The term describes persons who cannot support themselves and depend on certain benefits. In deciding whether you are likely to become a public charge in the future, the INS must look at the following factors together: your age, health, income, family size, education, and skills. Although advocates have found that the INS does tend to look at adjustment petitions for battered spouses more favorably, you should be prepared to show the INS that they should look at your entire situation to decide if you are likely to become a public charge in the future.

My self-petition under VAWA has been approved. Will I be found a “public charge” if I use benefits before I get my green card?

No. VAWA self-petitioners can use all benefits, including cash welfare, without affecting the “public charge” decision.

My husband filed a visa petition for me. If I use benefits before I get my green card (and do not file a self-petition), will I be found a “public charge”?

You can use most benefits, including health care (Medi-Cal, Healthy Families, county health programs), nutrition programs (food stamps, WIC, school lunches) or other non-cash welfare benefits such as child care, transportation, or housing assistance, without affecting the “public charge” decision. However, cash programs that provide monthly income, like CalWORKs, SSI, CAPI, and General Assistance, and nursing home or other long-term care may be counted against you in the public charge decision. You should not be denied a green card just because you used cash welfare in the past. But you will need to show that you are not likely to become a public charge in the future. It will be easier to show this if you used welfare only briefly to get through a hard time, or if you used welfare a long time ago.

What if only my children get benefits?

The INS will not look at whether your children or other family members used health care or other non-cash benefits like those listed above. If your children or other family members use cash welfare (like CalWORKs or SSI), it will not count against you in a public charge decision unless it is your family’s only income.

If I already have my green card, are there any risks of using benefits?

In general, using cash welfare will not be a problem for you once you already have your green card. It will not affect your ability to become a citizen. However, it could be a problem if you travel outside the U.S. for more than 6 months (see the question below). Using non-cash benefits will not cause a problem for you.

I have my green card and I get cash welfare. Can I travel outside of the United States?

If you are a lawful permanent resident who gets SSI, CAPI, CalWORKs, or other cash welfare right now, you should not travel outside the U.S. for more than 180 days (about 6 months). Any time you are gone for more than 180 days, the INS can ask you questions about whether you are likely to become a public charge, and may not let you re-enter the country. If you are outside of the U.S. for 180 days or less, in most cases the INS will not ask you questions about public charge when you re-enter the U.S. The INS will only ask you these questions if you intended to live permanently in another country, committed certain crimes, or had a pending deportation or removal case when you left the country.