Nearly everyone with limited income and resources can get SNAP assistance if they are citizens or meet specific immigration status requirements.
The USDA has never extended SNAP eligibility to undocumented non-citizens. The guidance is clear, but the rules can be confusing.
Learn some of the myths surrounding SNAP for non-citizens and whether you or someone you know may be eligible for vital food assistance.
Since its foundations were first poured in 1939 as the federal Food Stamp Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, has grown to become the largest nutrition safety net in the U.S. today.1
Every year, this vital anti-hunger program helps millions of our country’s most vulnerable people afford the food they need to stay healthy. According to the most recent statistics available, more than 21.5 million low-income households—or 41.1 million people—have participated in SNAP so far in 2022.2
“Food insecurity looks exactly like America does,” explained Brandy Bauer, director of the National Council on Aging (NCOA)’s MIPPA Resource Center.
Older adults and young children, single parents and married couples, veterans, people living with disabilities—anyone can struggle to put meals on the table, regardless of their race, sex, gender, or national origin.”
This includes the “foreign-born”—a demographic comprising naturalized citizens, people with permanent resident status (green cards), refugees, undocumented immigrants, and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, among others.
“As they have for centuries, people continue to arrive on America’s shores seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families,” Bauer said. But it’s not always an easy road. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the self-reported levels of food insecurity among adults in families with non-citizens was significantly higher than in families whose members are all citizens (25.5 percent versus 16.8 percent, respectively).4
So what about SNAP, then? Couldn’t these hungry families get food stamps?
The SNAP program itself asserts that “no one in our land of plenty should fear going hungry.”5 As a federal entitlement program, SNAP benefits are available to nearly everyone with limited income and resources as long as they are citizens or meet specific immigration status requirements. Therein lies the rub, according to Bauer.
“The guidance seems clear, but in reality, the rules governing SNAP for eligible non-citizens are complex and can be hard to interpret,” she said. It’s no wonder that a variety of misconceptions exist around the topic—misconceptions that, in some cases, prevent hungry people from seeking help they might deserve.
This guide to SNAP assistance for non-citizens addresses some of the most common of these myths with the facts you need to make informed choices for yourself or someone you know.
SNAP for non-citizens: 5 myths busted
The USDA has never extended SNAP eligibility to undocumented non-citizens—but other lawfully present non-citizens may qualify. Confusion over the two means that historically, SNAP participation among eligible non-citizen households is low.6
Because the SNAP eligibility rules for lawfully present non-citizens are nuanced, and can be applied differently to different groups of people, you should always reference the USDA’s detailed non-citizen eligibility guidance whenever you have a question about your specific situation.
❌ Myth: I don’t qualify for SNAP because I have a green card.
✅ Fact: Green card holders can get food stamps.
Under SNAP rules, non-citizens who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence (LPRs, or individuals with green cards) can be eligible for SNAP assistance once they meet one of the following additional conditions:
- Live in the U.S. for at least five years
- Work during 40 qualifying quarters
- Be under the age of 18
- Be blind or disabled
- Be born on or before 8/22/31 and lawfully resided in the U.S. on 8/22/96
- Have a specifically defined military connection
❌ Myth: I can’t get food stamps if my husband is illegal.
✅ Fact: You may still qualify even if your spouse doesn’t.
Most of the time, SNAP eligibility applies to your entire household. However, if your spouse is an undocumented immigrant, you would not be able to include their income or assets on your SNAP application. If you’re a U.S. citizen or lawfully present non-citizen yourself, then technically you could be eligible for SNAP assistance.
❌ Myth: Dreamers (DACA recipients) can get food stamps.
✅ Fact: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients aren’t eligible for SNAP.
Currently, DACA recipients are not considered qualified non-citizens under SNAP rules, which prevents them from participating in this and other federal means-tested benefits programs.
❌ Myth: I can’t receive SNAP benefits if I don’t speak English.
✅ Fact: English language literacy does not impact your eligibility.
You deserve to have enough food to eat no matter what language you speak, read, or write. This is true even if you struggle with literacy in English or your native tongue. If you’re a U.S. citizen or lawfully present non-citizen who meets the additional eligibility requirements to get food stamps, reach out to your local SNAP agency for assistance. Translation services and other accessibility support may be available.
❌ Myth: I will be deported if I apply for SNAP.
✅ Fact: Participating in SNAP will not affect your immigration status.
If you or someone you know needs food assistance, always be sure to check with your local SNAP agency—you won’t get in trouble for asking. Some states provide online and printed SNAP applications in languages other than English, and may offer translation services, too.
SNAP resources for more information and guidance
It’s important to understand that everyone—regardless of their citizenship status—must meet all of the other SNAP eligibility requirements in order to qualify for benefits. These can depend on your age, disability status, and other situations; please reference these additional articles for more specific information and guidance:
- What is the Income Limit for SNAP?
- Can I Get SNAP if I’m on Disability?
- SNAP Assistance: Are Veterans Entitled to Benefits?
- To make things easier, NCOA also has an free, confidential tool that can help you better understand the SNAP program, who might be eligible, and how to apply.
Can lawfully present non-citizens get additional financial assistance?
Potentially. There are more than 2,500 assistance programs available to help pay for certain living expenses such as food, medicine, housing and utilities, transportation, and more. Many may be available in addition to SNAP. Explore eligibility for yourself or someone else using NCOA’s handy BenefitsCheckUp.org
1. A Short History of SNAP. Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/short-history-snap
2. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Program Information Report, U.S. Summary FY2021 – FY2022. Found on the internet at https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/data-files/keydata-january-2022.pdf
3. The Brookings Institute. “How many undocumented immigrants are in the United States and who are they?” Found on the internet at https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/how-many-undocumented-immigrants-are-in-the-united-states-and-who-are-they/
4. The Urban Institute. More Than One in Six Adults Were Food Insecure Two Months into the COVID-19 Recession: Findings from the May 14-27 Coronavirus Tracking Survey. Found on the internet at https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/102579/more-than-one-in-six-adults-were-food-insecure-two-months-into-the-covid-19-recession.pdf
5. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. SNAP Work Requirements. Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/work-requirements
6. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Guidance on Non-Citizen Eligibility. Found on the internet at https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Non-Citizen_Guidance_063011.pdf