Immigrants who come to the U.S. without authorization have very limited access to government benefits. But an old falsehood revived by conservatives conflates aid given to authorized refugees with the limited assistance available to immigrants who entered the country illegally. The claim also inflates the benefits given to refugees.
Social media has been awash with claims inflating the amount of government aid given to immigrants as crossings at the southern border continue to draw attention.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, for example, posted one such meme on Oct. 2. It said: “Retirement plan: 1) Move to Mexico 2) Give up citizenship 3) Come back illegally 4) Set for life!”
The same claim has been circulating since September, racking up tens of thousands of engagements, after Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado wrote on X, “Biden is giving each illegal family $2,200 per month plus a free plane ticket and free medical care. If you come to this country illegally, you get everything handed to you on a silver platter. If you’re a struggling American citizen, you get nothing.”
We emailed Boebert’s campaign to ask what her claim was based on, but we didn’t get a response. Our email to her congressional office asking the same thing wasn’t answered, either.
So, we don’t know where she got her faulty information. But there had been a story on the Gateway Pundit, a conservative website known for spreading false claims, that made a similar claim on Sept. 7, the day before Boebert posted on social media.
The headline on that story said: “Outrageous! Border Patrol Agent Reveals Biden Regime Gives $2,200 of Taxpayer Money Per Illegal Immigrant Family, Plus a Plane Ticket, Housing, Food, Free Medical Services.”
But the only support for that claim in the story came from a video posted on X on Sept. 6 purporting to show an anonymous border patrol agent. As the camera panned around a group of people who appeared to be immigrant parents with children, the border agent said, “They get a check every month. … My understanding, I’ve heard it’s around $2,200.”
About two weeks before that video was posted, retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor had claimed on Tucker Carlson’s show, hosted on X: “We hand every alleged asylum seeker – illegal migrant – pouring into the border in Texas or wherever else, we hand them when they get there $2,200 and we put them on that $2,200 diet from there on out per month.”
We reached out to Macgregor, a frequent guest on conservative broadcasts, to ask where he got his information about the monthly payments. His office told us it came from a July 24 post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, from a group called Texans for Strong Borders.
That post repeated, almost verbatim, a widely debunked claim that conservative commentator Charlie Kirk made on Twitter in 2019 about refugees — not people living in the U.S. illegally.
Both posts claimed: “The government pays out $2,125/month in refugee benefits to refugees resettled in the United States.”
We asked Texans for Strong Borders why it posted this debunked claim four years after it was first made, but we didn’t hear back.
Misinformation is often recycled in this way and this claim, in particular, is a perfect example.
It started as a falsehood about refugee assistance in Canada in 2004 and later migrated to the U.S. We wrote about versions of this claim, beginning in 2007, and then again in 2009, 2010, and 2019.
PolitiFact wrote about another version of the claim in 2018, when a Facebook post wrongly said “illegal refugees get $3,874/mo.” The fact-checking site pointed out that authorized refugees are eligible to receive a one-time grant worth a total of $2,125.
Kirk saw that and included the figure in his 2019 post, a spokesman for Kirk told PolitiFact after his tweet had resurfaced and was widely repeated in 2021. Importantly, Kirk had misrepresented the one-time grant as a monthly payment.
Now, time and repetition have flattened that initial misrepresentation of a fact into a complete falsehood by conflating aid to authorized refugees with limited assistance given to migrants who entered the country illegally.
The bottom line is, U.S. law prohibits immigrants who came to the U.S. without authorization from accessing most federal benefits.
There are some narrow exceptions, including emergency medical treatment; immunization against communicable diseases; short-term, non-cash disaster relief; and some services such as soup kitchens, crisis counseling and intervention, and short-term shelter.
Those who have sought asylum in the U.S. and have been granted refugee status after applying through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, on the other hand, have access to some aid.
U.S. law defines a refugee, in part, as someone who is “unable or unwilling” to return to their country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
The number of refugees who are accepted each year is capped by the president under the Refugee Act of 1980 — for fiscal year 2023, the cap is set at 125,000 — so the number of people eligible for benefits is limited. As of the end of August, with one month of the fiscal year left, the U.S. had admitted a total of 51,231 refugees, according to State Department data.
Those benefits include a one-time payment from the Department of State to help refugees resettle, which is now $2,375 per refugee. Only $1,275 is available to be given directly to refugees, though, to cover things such as food, clothing and rent. The rest goes to the resettlement agency, which provides services and case management for refugees during their first three months in the U.S.
Other assistance programs that refugees are eligible for are time-limited, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and Refugee Cash Assistance, or RCA.
TANF is a state-administered program for needy families that is funded jointly by federal and state governments. It is available to refugee families for their first five years in the U.S. According to the most recent data available from the Department of Health and Human Services, as of fiscal year 2021, 93% of TANF recipients were U.S. citizens, while 7% were immigrants living in the U.S. legally. Families receiving TANF benefits that year got, on average, $517 per month.
RCA is a federally funded program that is also administered by states. Cash benefit levels are set by each state, so the amounts vary. That program, which is available to refugees who don’t qualify for TANF, covers only the first eight months that a refugee is in the country.
So, the claim from Ramaswamy and the others suggesting that anyone who enters the U.S. without authorization is entitled to more benefits than citizens is wrong. Those immigrants have very limited access to the country’s social safety net programs.
Ramaswamy didn’t respond to our questions about his claim.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Southwest Land Border Encounters. Updated 22 Sep 2023.
Macgregor, Douglas. Emailed response to FactCheck.org. 3 Oct 2023.
Reuters Fact Check. “Fact Check-Refugee resettlement and social security benefits meme is misleading.” Reuters. 6 Oct 2021.
Putterman, Samantha. “Comparison of refugee, Social Security payments is outdated and exaggerated.” PolitiFact. 30 Sep 2021.
Jackson, Brooks. “Refugees Don’t Get $1,800 Per Month.” FactCheck.org. 7 Dec 2007.
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Hale Spencer, Saranac. “Comparing Benefits for Refugees and Senior Citizens.” FactCheck.org. 19 Jul 2019.
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Congressional Research Service. “Unauthorized Immigrants’ Eligibility for Federal and State Benefits: Overview and Resources.” 29 Nov 2022.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Refugees. 26 Oct 2022.
U.S. Department of State. Press release. “The Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions for Fiscal Year 2023.” 27 Sep 2022.
U.S. Department of State. “U.S. Refugee Admissions Program: Reception and Placement.” Accessed 2 Oct 2022.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “What is TANF?” Updated 9 May 2023.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “How Many People Participate in the Social Safety Net?” 20 Jan 2023.