Do I Need to Be a Citizen to Get SSI Disability?

Immigrants who are permanent residents, asylees, refugees, or other type of qualified aliens can be eligible for SSI under certain conditions.

By , Contributing Author

SSI benefits are available to all qualifying United States (U.S.) citizens; additionally, residents who are not citizens are sometimes eligible for benefits, including U.S. nationals, aliens, and other non-citizens. As a general rule, an otherwise qualified immigrant who is facing deportation or removal is not eligible for disability.

Regardless of immigration status, the applicant must prove still that he or she is disabled and meets the income and asset tests required for SSI. For more information, see our series of articles on SSI. (If someone "sponsored" your entrance into the U.S., Social Security will usually count your sponsor's income and assets when determining your SSI eligibility. Your local field office can explain how your sponsor's income and assets affect your eligibility.)

Qualified Aliens

A person who meets the U.S. definition of a "qualified alien" is eligible for SSI. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) defines a "qualified alien" as the following:

  • a person lawfully admitted for permanent residence (LAPR) (this includes "Amerasian immigrants")
  • a person given conditional entry into the U.S. before April 1, 1980 under Section 203(a)(7) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
  • a person paroled into the U.S. for at least one year pursuant to Section 212(d)(5) of the INA
  • a refugee admitted to the U.S. under Section 207 of the INA
  • a person given asylum under Section 208 of the INA
  • a person whose deportation or removal is being stayed under Sections 243(h) (prior to April 1, 1997) or 241(b)(3) respectively, or
  • a Cuban or Haitian as defined by Section 501(e) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980, or in another status that is treated similarly for SSI purposes.

Sometimes a person can become a "deemed qualified alien" if the person, the person's child, or the person's parent suffered from domestic violence or extreme cruelty by a relative while the person was in the U.S.

Additional Conditions

If you are an eligible immigrant and otherwise meet the disability requirements, you must also show that you meet one of the following conditions in order to receive benefits:

  • a permanent resident with 40 qualifying quarters of work*
  • you are on active duty with the U.S. military or have an honorable discharge not related to your immigration status
  • you were receiving SSI and lawfully residing in the U.S. on or before August 22, 1996, or
  • you were lawfully in the U.S. on August 22, 1996 and you are blind or disabled.

*If you are applying for SSI, you may be able to use work done by your parents or spouse to meet the 40 quarters of work requirement. If you came to the U.S. on or after August 22, 1996 and have LAPR status, you may not be eligible for SSI for your first five years as an LAPR.

Limitations on Benefits

There may be limitations to your benefits based on your immigration status. If you were granted one of the following immigration statuses within seven years of filing for SSI, you may only be eligible for SSI for a period of seven years:

  • refugee status under Section 207 of the INA
  • asylum status under Section 208 of the INA
  • alien status whose deportation or removal was stayed under Sections 243(h) or 241(b)(3) of the INA (respectively)
  • Cuban or Haitian status as defined by Section 501(e) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980, or
  • "Amerasian immigrant" status under Section 584 of the amended Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriate Act of 1988.

However, you may be able to receive SSI for more than seven years even if you are in one of these immigration categories if:

  • you meet one of the additional conditions discussed above OR
  • you are eligible for a two- or three-year extension under P.S. 110-328 (enacted October 1, 2008), AND
  • you can prove that you qualify for U.S. citizenship and have made a good faith effort to obtain citizenship.

Non-Citizen Native Americans

A non-citizen Native American is eligible for SSI if:

  • the person was born in Canada and admitted to the United States under Section 289 of the INA, OR
  • the person is a non-citizen and a member of an Indian tribe recognized by the United States that falls under Section 4(e) of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

Additional Alien Categories Eligible for SSI

SSI benefits may also be available to non-citizens who are victims of human trafficking or who are Iraqi or Afghani and present in the United States under special immigrant status.

If you were a victim of human trafficking, visit the Office of Refugee Resettlement website to see what services may be available to you.

Proof of Immigration Status

You must give proof to Social Security of your immigration status when you apply for SSI. Here are some documents you may need to provide:

  • current CBP Arrival/Departure Record, Form I-94
  • Form I-551 or court order from your immigration judge that shows your asylum status, or
  • proof of military service (such as discharge papers).

Your local Social Security field office can advise you as to the exact documents you need.

U.S. Nationals

U.S. nationals are eligible for SSI benefits if they otherwise meet the SSI requirements. All U.S. citizens are nationals and, although rare, a person may receive U.S. national status without being a U.S. citizen. A person is eligible for a U.S. national certificate if:

  • the person is born in American Samoa or the Swains Islands ("outlying possessions of the United States")
  • the person is born outside of the U.S. and has two parents who are U.S. non-citizen nationals, so long as both parents were residents of either the U.S. or outlying possessions
  • the person was, while under the age of five, found in an outlying possession and has unknown parentage
  • the person is born outside the U.S. or its outlying possessions and has one parent who is an alien and one parent who is a non-citizen U.S. national, and, prior to the birth of the person, the parents were present in the U.S. or its outlying possessions for not less than seven years in a ten year continuous period AND
    • the U.S. national parent was not outside of the U.S. or its outlying possessions for a continuous period of more than a year AND
    • at least five of the years the U.S. national parent spent living in the U.S. or its outlying territories was done after the age of 14.

For more information on how to obtain a certificate for non-citizen U.S. nationality, visit the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs website.

As a aside, if you don't speak or understand English well, see our article on When the Inability to Speak English Helps You Get Disability Benefits.

You May Want Help From an Attorney

Filing for disability can be a complicated process, and when immigration status is an additional issue, it is a good idea to contact an experienced disability attorney. Disability attorneys are paid a percentage of the SSI back payments, which Social Security will pay you when you are approved for benefits, but only if you win disability benefits.

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