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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 35, 2019

Health, Well-Being, and Society

Chong Choe-Smith
Pages 41-58

Should Undocumented Immigrants Have Access to Public Benefits?

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most federally funded public benefits programs with few exceptions such as emergency medical assistance and nutrition assistance for women and children. This paper defends the view that a liberal society should provide greater access to undocumented immigrants to public benefits programs and responds to an important economic objection that a state should be able to prioritize the needs of its own members who contribute to these programs. This paper specifically addresses empirical and moral versions of this objection. It also distinguishes between two kinds of public benefits. Certain public benefits, such as social security, may reflect an agreed-upon distribution of public goods, to which people are entitled based on their membership or contribution. Other public benefits, such as nutrition assistance, are set aside primarily to help people based on their need. In the latter case, it is not membership or contribution, but need or which need is greater, that supplies justification for the distribution of these benefits even when resources are limited.

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