Growing State Safety Net Gives a Boost to Some New Migrants

Growing State Safety Net Gives a Boost to Some New Migrants

A family leaves the Roosevelt Hotel shelter as migrants began to receive eviction notices, Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Alex Krales/THE CITY

By Gabriel Poblette

Nearly a year after New York state took steps to make it easier for asylum applicants to obtain public assistance cash benefits, about 7,400 migrant and refugee households in the city appear to be benefiting under a program called Safety Net Assistance.

The latest quarterly report from the city Human Resources Administration shows that refugees and asylum-seekers make up 4% of all city cases in the program, a share that grew sharply in 2022 as migrants flocked to New York City.

Safety Net Assistance helps needy New Yorkers who are ineligible for Family Assistance, the cash benefits program mostly funded by the federal government via Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grants. Many noncitizens who are ineligible for those federal dollars.

Enrollment in Safety Net Assistance has been growing rapidly since the pandemic, as economic hardship has grown, reaching about 250,000 people in 186,000 cases as of February. That doesn’t count another 116,000-plus people who rolled over to Safety Net Assistance after reaching a five-year limit on federal benefits.

The share of asylum-seekers and refugees in the program has quadrupled since migrants began arriving in large numbers in mid-2022, growing from 1% according to the HRA reports and peaking at 5% in the January 2023 quarterly report..

Asylum-seekers already qualified for Safety Net Assistance benefits if they had filed applications for asylum and had also obtained work authorization from the federal government. A policy change last May allowed asylum-seekers to qualify for cash benefits even if they had not yet obtained work authorization —  an application process that can’t even begin until after six months in the U.S.

The state’s move also allowed people from Venezuela and other eligible countries who had applied for Temporary Protected Status, as well those who’ve applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, to qualify for benefits.

The New York Post had first reported last month on the policy change, not clarifying that asylum-seekers had already been eligible, albeit under stricter conditions.

The jump in the share of Safety Net Assistance recipients who are asylum-seekers or refugees happened before the May 2023 policy shift, the HRA statistics show.

The state’s expansion of those who are considered PRUCOL — Permanently Residing Under the Color of the Law — is an important one, Jack Newton, director of Legal Services NYC’s public benefits & LGBTQ advocacy units, said to THE CITY. Only noncitizens who are considered PRUCOL can be eligible for Safety Net Assistance.

New York City had asked for that change, according to Anthony Farmer, spokesperson for the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, to align the definition of PRUCOL used for Safety Net Assistance with the PRUCOL definition used for Medicaid.

Newton said that such inconsistencies for who is PRUCOL among state programs could have led to legal issues for the state because of disparate treatment.

“There are a lot of categories that were swept in, and to say its asylum is really missing a mark. It just happens to be a political football at this particular moment in time,” Newton said of the rule change. “They swept in a variety of different categories, many of which in my view and in the view of many others, were ripe for lawsuit for their failure to have been included before.”

Jean Carlos, a Venezuelan migrant who arrived in the city about a year ago with his family, told THE CITY that he and his wife recently applied for cash benefits, after a friend mentioned they’d be eligible. They expect to receive financial help in the coming days.

The family, with a young son and two daughters, had applied for Temporary Protected Status back in December and enrolled in healthcare two months ago.

Carlos described his work situation as unsteady, working more some weeks than others in minimum wage jobs. “It’ll help with food, with clothes. With that money we’ll be able to do more,” he said of the cash assistance.

Small Portion of Overall State Aid

City Department of Social Services spokesperson Neha Sharma said that based on preliminary assessments, a small percentage of recently-arrived migrants would qualify for Safety Net Assistance under the expanded PRUCOL definition. HRA, overseen by the Department of Social Services, is responsible for assessing who qualifies for Safety Net Assistance and administering cash benefits.

Neither the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance nor the city Department of Social Services provided information of how many more people now have access to SNA because of the policy change. However, the quarterly fact sheets from HRA might provide some insight, and don’t display a discernible difference after the policy change.

The fact sheets show that of the caseload profile for SNA, the percentage of those qualified as “Asylum/Refugees/Other” has trended between 3% and 5% between October 2022 and the most recent information from January 2024. Prior to October 2022, “Asylum/Refugees/Other” mostly held at 1% through 2013, which is as far back as the fact sheets go.

Both Family Assistance and Safety Net Assistance can connect people with cash benefits, as well as reimbursing New York City for shelter costs. The federal government covers 85% of costs for those who qualify for Family Assistance, with the city paying the remaining 15%, as noted in an Independent Budget Office report.  

When it comes to Safety Net Assistance, the city currently pays 71%, while the state just pays for 29%. The state has maintained the spirit of this cost-share agreement for migrant-related costs, including emergency shelter, allocating up to $1 billion in reimbursement for costs the city incurs between April 1, 2022 and April 1, 2024 and claimed by the city by Aug. 15.

Farmer told THE CITY that 90% of the migrant population won’t see any changes under the policy change from last year.

“At the request of New York City, OTDA made a technical update to allow a small percentage of migrants to receive certain additional support in compliance with state and federal law,” Farmer said in a statement, which was also provided to the New York Post. “This assistance is a small portion of the $4.3 billion that Governor Hochul has already announced she is planning to spend on the migrant crisis in the absence of new federal aid.”

According to City Hall numbers from earlier this month, over 48,000 asylum applicants have listed a New York State address on their forms.

Applying for asylum comes with its difficulties, and recent arrivals have to complete their applications within a year of entering the country. Those seeking asylum must file a 12-page English-language application that asks very specific questions. Many require an attorney to properly complete their applications, but many organizations that provide free legal help have been overwhelmed by the demand.

The city recently announced last month a pilot program under which it would provide prepaid debit cards to migrants for certain essentials, including food and baby supplies. The program is not related to Safety Net Assistance cash benefits.

This article was published by THE CITY on March 25, 2024.

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