Does an Immigrant Have the Right to File for Unemployment?

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The United States prides itself on being a “nation of immigrants." Our national mythology celebrates the Horatio Alger story, revering these new arrivals for pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. But when those bootstraps break, do immigrants qualify for unemployment benefits? The answer is yes – as long as they are here legally and satisfy a few extra requirements.

1 All Legal Workers Qualify

According to the National Employment Law Project, anyone who has worked in the United States, including immigrants, is eligible to receive state-administered unemployment benefits. To qualify, candidates must first meet these basic requirements:

1) They must be unemployed “through no fault of their own.” 2) They must have enough wages earned or hours worked to establish a claim. 3) They must be available and searching for work and cannot refuse any “suitable” work.

2 Which Immigrants Qualify

According to federal law, immigrant workers must further qualify by belonging to one of the immigration categories approved for unemployment insurance. The first category consists of legal resident non-citizens. The second includes non-residents who have special work authorization, such as Canadians and Mexican commuters with U.S. work permission. This category also includes non-immigrants with work authorization, such as H2 and H1B visa holders who provide seasonal labor in the tourism industry and highly skilled labor for tech industries. A third category consists of immigrants whose status is known as “permanently residing under color of law,” or PRUCOL; this group includes refugees and immigrants who have been officially granted political asylum as well as Cubans and Haitians -- who have special asylum status -- who have recently arrived and whose cases have not yet been approved, among other groups. An additional category that qualifies under the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996 includes battered spouses of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.

3 Extended Unemployment Benefits

Other unemployment compensation paid by the federal government, such as extended benefits for workers who have been unemployed for more than 26 weeks, are only available to immigrants who also qualify for welfare benefits. The number of immigrants who qualify for these benefits is lower, excluding, for example, non-resident commuters and guest workers with H2 and H1B visas.

4 Funding of Immigrant Benefits

Concern that immigrants are a burden on society has been a long-standing issue in the United States. However, the above-mentioned restrictions are designed to prevent abuse of the system. Furthermore, because unemployment insurance is funded through worker payroll taxes, immigrant unemployment compensation is, in a sense, self-financing.

Based in Medellín, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.