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PolitiFact FL: DeSantis’ claim about benefits for immigrants in California is missing context

A woman holds a boy.
Rich Pedroncelli
In this May 20, 2019 file photo Oralia Sandoval, center, holds her son Benjamin, 6, as she participates in an Immigrants Day of Action rally, in Sacramento, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom's first budget, signed in June, lets immigrants at age 25 and under living in the country illegally sign up for Medicaid benefits if they meet income requirements.

While in Sierra Vista, Arizona, the 2024 presidential candidate held a roundtable discussion with sheriffs during which he shied away from discussing the flights but said it’s clear why California would appeal to people in the U.S. illegally.

"A place like California, they give benefits. They give unemployment checks," DeSantis said. "They do all that. And so you can see why some of those folks were interested in going that direction."

Immigrants in the country illegally are generally ineligible for federal benefits, but some states, including California, have created their own programs. However, California does not currently offer unemployment benefits to people in the U.S. illegally.

The flights to California are part of a Florida tax payer-funded program to transport immigrants to Democratic-led states. In September 2022, Florida officials oversaw a flight of about 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. In an interview with NBC’s "Today" show, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said the state is investigating the situation and will hold people "accountable if they broke the laws in the state of California."

DeSantis’ evidence is mixed

DeSantis’ office pointed us to certain benefits as evidence for his claim, even though one program has been halted for three years, another does not apply to migrants in the country illegally, and another applies to immigrants who are a certain age.

DeSantis’ office highlighted the following:

  • COVID-19 relief: California announced it would provide $125 million to people in the U.S. illegally who were ineligible for federal COVID-19 assistance due to their immigration status. Under the program, people could apply for up to $500 per adult with a $1,000 cap per household. That program stopped accepting applications in June 2020.
  • Cash assistance: The state-based Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants gives monthly cash payouts to certain immigrants who are older than 65, are blind or disabled. The program is not available to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. It applies to certain noncitizens in the U.S. legally, such as lawful permanent residents, refugees and people granted asylum. A 2023 bill would expand these benefits to all immigrants regardless of their status, but it has not yet received a vote.
  • Health care benefits: Under the state’s Medicaid program — Medi-Cal — California provides medical care to immigrants in the country illegally who are younger than 26 or older than 50. Emergency and prenatal care is available to anyone in the state regardless of age or immigration status. Under the new state budget, Medi-Cal will be expanded to include people between 26 and 49. However, that program is expected to begin in 2024. 

Here are the benefits California provides to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center a nonprofit that supports immigrant rights:

  • Food assistance: California expanded food assistance to immigrants older than 55 regardless of their status. However, a proposed spending plan would delay the program’s implementation until 2027. 
  • In-state tuition and financial aid: People who attended a California high school for at least three years and graduated are eligible for in-state college tuition regardless of their immigration status. Some students are also eligible for state financial aid
  • Driver’s licenses: In California, people who are not in the U.S. legally can get a driver’s license if they can prove they live in the state and meet the other requirements for a license. 

Like California, Florida also provides in-state college tuition to students in the U.S. illegally, which DeSantis wanted to repeal. However, Florida does not provide financial aid.

Not eligible for unemployment benefits in California

Immigrants in the country illegally and living in California are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Immigrants can receive state unemployment benefits only if they have a "satisfactory immigration status" and are "authorized to work in the United States," according to the state’s eligibility criteria.

When we asked DeSantis’ office about this, a spokesperson directed us to an article about a bill the state Senate passed that would provide immigrants in the U.S. illegally $300 a week for up to 20 weeks if they have been laid off. The bill is now in the Assembly awaiting hearings and votes. The Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but Newsom vetoed it.

At the time, Newsom said, "This bill needs further work to address the operational issues and fiscal concerns, including a dedicated funding source for benefits.

"With our state facing lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of this fiscal year, it is also important to remain disciplined when it comes to spending, particularly spending that is ongoing."

Our ruling

DeSantis said California gives immigrants in the U.S. illegally "benefits. They give unemployment checks."

California provides some benefits to people in the country illegally, but unemployment relief is not among them. Newsom vetoed a bill that would have done that in 2022; a similar bill was introduced this year. It has passed the Senate and now is in the Assembly.

Many of the state benefits available to immigrants residing illegally have strict eligibility guidelines. Expansions to some of these have been proposed but are still months or years away from being implemented.

For example, students in California can access in-state tuition and financial aid for college. Some people are eligible for coverage of hospitalizations, doctor visits and mental health services. Certain expansions to health care and food assistance benefits have been approved, but the programs have not been implemented. During COVID-19, the California government gave people who were ineligible for federal pandemic relief because of their immigration status up to $500 per adult.

DeSantis’ statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.

PolitiFact Staff Writer Nuria Diaz Muñoz contributed to this report.

Our Sources

Maria Ramirez Uribe is an immigration reporter at PolitiFact.
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