Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Article Index

C. Public Benefits

Since the origins of welfare programs, non-citizens have received certain public benefits, although their right to do so is equivocal. On one hand, the jurisprudential high-water mark for immigrant equal protection arose in a challenge to state restrictions on immigrant access to welfare benefits. In Graham v. Richardson, the Supreme Court held that lawful immigrants are a ““suspect” class that has been subjected to historical mistreatment. Thus, the Court found that state laws discriminating against lawful immigrants should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, and that Arizona and Pennsylvania's discriminatory state welfare codes failed to meet this test.

However, in Mathews v. Diaz the Court backtracked, holding that the federal government had discretion to withhold medical benefits from refugees that it provided to lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who had lived in the United States for at least five years. With little judicial brake on benefit restriction, the trend since Mathews has been towards limiting immigrant access to benefits. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 restricted even lawful immigrants' access to Medicaid, Social Security, and cash welfare benefits.

Taken together, Graham and Mathews appear to set out a spectrum of membership rights, with the status of the immigrant and identity of the discriminator being the relevant factors. In Graham, the discriminators were states; in Mathews, it was the federal government, with its plenary power over immigration. In Graham, the challengers were LPRs; in Mathews, two refugees and one LPR. The holding of Graham--that alienage is a suspect class--has mostly been limited in the years since to cases involving LPRs subject to state discrimination.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law