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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Meme Misleads on Benefits of Illegal Immigration

Q: Does the U.S. provide medical insurance and voting rights to immigrants in the country illegally? 

A: No. A viral meme misrepresents what such immigrants are entitled to in the U.S.


A viral meme on Facebook criticizes the U.S. for supposed benefits afforded to immigrants who enter the country illegally, and it attempts to contrast U.S. policies with those of other countries.

“If you cross the border illegally in the U.S., you get a Drivers License, Medical Insurance, housing, career training, the right to vote…” reads the meme, which is attributed to the conservative blog Patriot Journal. “SHARE = FED UP!”

Tens of thousands did just that, spreading the text-based image on the social media platform. But the meme is misleading on a number of fronts.

Such claims about benefits being given to those living in the U.S. illegally aren’t new. We wrote about this when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz claimed during a 2016 GOP presidential debate that, if he were elected, “we will end welfare benefits for those here illegally.”

As we noted then, U.S. law already prohibits such immigrants from receiving most federal benefits. There are some exceptions, such as emergency medical care; short-term, non-cash emergency disaster relief; limited housing or community development assistance to those who were already receiving it in 1996; public health assistance for communicable diseases; and programs such as soup kitchens.

The meme, however, makes false and exaggerated claims about driver’s licenses, medical insurance and the right to vote. 

Driver’s Licenses. Some states do indeed afford immigrants driving privileges regardless of their immigration status — but it’s far from a guarantee given to all immigrants living in the country illegally. As of May 2017, 12 states — plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — have such laws, according to the National Immigration Law Center.

Medical Insurance. Immigrants in the country illegally are not eligible for government health care programs, including Medicare and non-emergency Medicaid. And they’re not eligible to receive federal subsidies or to outright buy their own insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. Some unauthorized immigrants may receive care through private employers, but many remain uninsured. Estimates vary. The Kaiser Family Foundation has estimated that 39 percent of immigrants in the country illegally do not have insurance. A 2013 report by the Migration Policy Institute, meanwhile, found that 68 percent of employed, adult workers in the country illegally did not have coverage.

That said, immigrants without insurance do sometimes receive care through emergency services, charity care or community health centers. The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation notes: “Medicaid payments for emergency services may be made on behalf of individuals who are otherwise eligible for Medicaid but for their immigration status. These payments cover costs for emergency care for lawfully present immigrants who remain ineligible for Medicaid as well as undocumented immigrants.”

Also, KFF says, some states “provide prenatal care to women regardless of immigration status by extending CHIP coverage to the unborn child.” CHIP is the federal Children’s Health Insurance Program. There are also some state and local programs that provide care to immigrants regardless of status.

Right to Vote. Federal law bars noncitizens from voting in federal elections. However, some municipalities — including several in Maryland — have allowed noncitizens to vote in local elections. In San Francisco, city voters approved a measure allowing some immigrants in the country illegally — those who are parents or guardians of school-age children — to vote in local school board elections there.

The meme attempts to contrast the treatment of immigrants crossing the border illegally in the U.S. with that of other countries, saying: “If you cross the border illegally in Canada you get a $5000 fine.”

We reached out to the Canada Border Services Agency to verify the penalties for entering that country illegally and were referred to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which hasn’t provided us with an answer yet. We’ll update this story when it does. Either way, it’s worth noting that U.S. law does allow for penalties and fines for illegal border crossings.

The law explicitly prohibits foreigners from entering the country illegally and calls for fines and/or imprisonment of up to six months (and up to two years for subsequent offenses). Civil penalties for those apprehended trying to enter illegally range from $50 to $250 for the first offense.

In addition, violations of a provision that outlines reporting requirements for those arriving in the U.S. can result in a civil penalty of up to $5,000 (and up to $10,000 for subsequent violations). Criminal penalties can include a fine of up to $5,000 and a year imprisonment. U.S. Customs and Border Protection cited that measure when they arrested two men in 2014 for illegally entering the country from Canada and collectively fined them $10,000.

The meme makes other claims, saying that for crossing the border illegally in Iran, “you get 8 years in prison.” Two American hikers in 2011 were sentenced to eight years in prison after they illegally crossed the Iranian border, but the court sentence reportedly included five years for alleged spying and three for entering the country illegally.

Editor’s note: FactCheck.org is one of several organizations working with Facebook to debunk misinformation shared on the social media network.


Capps, Randy, et. al. “A Demographic, Socioeconomic, and Health Coverage Profile of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. May 2013.

Health Coverage of Immigrants.” Kaiser Family Foundation. 13 Dec 2017.

Immigrant Eligibility for Health Care Programs in the United States.” National Conference of State Legislatures. 19 Oct 2017.

Kiely, Eugene, et. al. “FactChecking the Eighth GOP Debate.” FactCheck.org. 7 Feb 2016.

Spencer, Saranac Hale. “Noncitizens Get Narrow Access to Polls in San Francisco.” FactCheck.org. 26 Jul 2018.

State Laws Providing Access to Driver’s Licenses or Cards, Regardless of Immigration Status.” National Immigration Law Center. May 2017.

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A meme claims that “if you cross the border illegally in the U.S., you get a Drivers License, Medical Insurance, housing, career training, the right to vote.”
Wednesday, October 31, 2018