Ensuring Access: Non-discrimination provisions require providing access to all survivors
Thursday, November 30th, 2017
Ensuring Access to Services Necessary for the Protection of Life or Safety
Some advocates or service providers express uncertainty as to whether their program can serve undocumented immigrants. When Congress enacted the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, also known as the “welfare reform law,” they placed additional restrictions on the ability of immigrants to access certain federal public benefits. However, it is important to remember that Congress specifically created an exception for services “necessary for protections of life or safety,” recognizing that these services should remain accessible to all regardless of immigration status. In 2001, the Attorney General issued an order reiterating the criteria established in PRWORA and specifying the types of programs, services, or assistance determined to be necessary for the protection of life or safety. Recently, in 2016, the Attorney General and the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), issued a joint letter to recipients of federal funding highlighting these long-standing provisions, consolidating information about relevant programs and services, and reminding service providers of the requirement to ensure access, regardless of immigration status, to services necessary for the protection of life or safety. This includes services such as emergency shelter; short-term housing assistance, including transitional housing for up to two years; crisis counseling; and abuse prevention and intervention programs.
The letter issued by these three federal agencies also clarifies that there are many federal programs that to do not fall under the definition of “federal public benefit,” and therefore were not restricted by PRWORA. For example, the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime clarified that Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) victim compensation benefits should not be denied to anyone on the basis of immigration status.
Furthermore, according to federal nondiscrimination provisions, recipients of federal funds must agree not to discriminate in the provision of services. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its implementing regulations, provide that no person shall be subjected to discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin under any program or activity that receives federal financial assistance. So, unless federal law requires screening for the immigration status of recipients (like PRWORA does for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and has included it in the eligibility criteria, a service program would not have a valid basis to turn someone away from their services based on perceived or actual immigration status and it would be discriminatory to single out particular people for exclusion based on national origin.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act also requires that recipients of federal funding take reasonable steps to ensure meaningful access to services for individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP). This is critical since it will not be possible to provide adequate information and support to assist immigrant survivors if a service program does not provide adequate language access for individuals with limited English proficiency. For additional tools and resources to improve language access, you can use this language access toolkit that was developed by Casa de Esperanza to help service providers improve meaningful access for LEP individuals.
Additionally, federal agencies that provide funding to domestic violence and sexual assault service providers have developed additional guidance regarding their obligation to make services accessible to all survivors, regardless of immigration status. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Program of HHS, Administration for Children and Families, recently issued revised federal regulations regarding implementation of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), which went into effect in January 2017. The regulations specifically state that “All FVPSA-funded services must be provided without requiring documentation of immigration status because HHS has determined that FVPSA-funded services do not fall within the definition of federal public benefit that would require verification of immigration status.”
Furthermore, the Civil Rights Division of HHS provides additional information on their website about access to HHS-funded services for Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence. The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) of the U.S. Department of Justice also provides guidance to OVW grantees clarifying that policies that exclude victims (or policies that have the impact of excluding victims) from receiving safe shelter, advocacy services and other assistance based on, among other things, their actual or perceived immigration status constitute activities that compromise victim safety and are prohibited with OVW grant funds.
To read the rest of this information, including ensuring access to services necessary for the protection of life and safety and discrimination provisions, download the PDF here.