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Applications and Immigration Status

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed March 2015

Can I be reported or deported for applying to public or subsidized housing?

Federal law requires that, under some circumstances, government agencies report to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) people that they know to be unlawfully present in the United States. This reporting requirement does not apply to its public and subsidized housing programs.26 Federally funded housing authorities do not have to report you to the immigration authority if you are applying for or live in public or subsidized housing. State-funded housing programs do not collect citizenship or immigration information; in any case, these programs should also be prohibited from distributing such information by laws protecting confidentiality.27

There is only one situation where a housing program is required to report lack of lawful immigration status: if you state on an application for a federal housing program that you have eligible immigration status, you are denied housing, you appeal your denial of housing, and, during the course of this appeal, you are found not to be lawfully present in this country.28 A housing program should report only “known,” not “suspected,” unlawfully present people. See HUD's questions and answers on this issue.

Be aware, however, that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security maintains a toll-free number to accept anonymous reports of immigration and customs violations.

Will I be considered a "public charge" for applying to public housing?

No.29 Immigration authorities will not consider you a public charge for applying for or receiving public housing. A public charge is a person who will likely need the government financial support through cash assistance, such as Transitional Assistance for Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC), or through long-term institutionalized care, like nursing home care.30 When determining whether an immigrant is likely to become a public charge, immigration authorities consider a number of factors, including age, health, financial status and education. They do not look at whether you have received public housing in making their decision.

Public charge decisions are very important. They can affect your ability to enter or return to the country as well as whether you can become a lawful permanent resident. The federal government does not make public charge decisions on every immigrant. For example, public charge is not an issue for refugees, asylees, or immigrants who apply for U.S. citizenship.  

Can my immigration status be affected if I do not accurately report my current immigration status on my housing application?

Yes. If you falsely claim to be a citizen or an eligible noncitizen on your housing application, the immigration authorities can deny your immigration application and can refuse to let you enter, return to, or become a legal resident of the United States. You will not only be denied housing benefits but you can also suffer severe immigration consequences. Therefore, it is best not to put anything on a housing application that is incorrect or untrue.

There are many instances when an immigration status may not be clear. If your immigration status is complicated and you are not sure whether you are eligible for a government housing program, you can write that on your application. You should also provide documents that show why you think you might be eligible for the housing program.

What should I put on the application about my income if I work but have not reported my income for taxes?

Most housing programs base the amount of rent on the household's income, and a family could be charged with fraud or evicted for failing to report income.

Immigrants who do not have a Social Security number can and should apply to the Internal Revenue Service for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), an identification number for tax purposes that allows you to report income and pay taxes without being deported. You can apply for an ITIN by filling out Form W7 found on the IRS Forms and Publications website. You can also get this form by going to an IRS office, or by calling 800-TAX FORM to have a copy mailed to you (takes 7-15 days), or faxing in a request to 703-368-9694.

Ideally, you or a member of your household will have an ITIN number in place before applying to any public or subsidized housing programs.

Do I need to provide a Social Security number?

In general, housing programs can and do ask for Social Security numbers to check information on your application, such as your income. But housing programs cannot require you to have a Social Security number, and cannot deny an application for failure to include a Social Security number. Unfortunately, many do.

You should never provide someone else’s or a false Social Security or other government-issued identification number (such as the one assigned by the state for the purpose of other cash benefits, like welfare).

For federal housing programs, every member of the household must provide a Social Security number EXCEPT for those household members who do not claim to have eligible immigration statuses.31

If you apply for state housing programs and do not have a Social Security number, there are no regulations about how to deal with this situation. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) requires adult household members in state assisted housing to provide Social Security numbers. However, DHCD has also notified housing authorities in guidance that an applicant does not need a Social Security number to be eligible for its programs.32 If an adult member of your household does not have a Social Security number, you should ask whether there are other forms, such as pay stubs and bank account statements, to use to verify identity or income.

You may also be told by a housing agency or owner that they need a Social Security number so that they can search for your criminal history, or Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI). See Tenant Screening. It is true that recent revisions to CORI regulations permit Social Security numbers to be one of the sources of information used to help verify identity.33 However, using Social Security numbers is not mandatory, and there are other sources of information that can be used to verify your identity. You should tell the housing agency or owner that no Social Security number has been assigned to you, that you understand that having a Social Security number is not necessary for you to be eligible for the program, that you are willing to certify that you have no Social Security number, and that you are willing to cooperate in providing other verifications.

If these strategies do not work, it may be useful to contact your local legal services office for assistance. Speak to an Immigration Specialist or visit your local legal services office.

What can I do if I do not speak English well and I need help understanding application papers?

The federal government refers to people who do not speak English well as people with limited English proficiency. Federal housing laws require that federally funded housing (public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and multifamily housing) must provide assistance to people with limited English skills so that they can have meaningful access to housing or other programs.34 Housing agencies and subsidized owners have the responsibility to:

  • Take reasonable steps to translate (both verbally and in writing) documents and meetings to help people apply for housing.
  • Have an interpreter at important meetings like conferences and hearings.
  • Translate important documents like leases, notices to quit, and notices of potential lease violations into languages spoken by a reasonably large percentage of housing authority residents.

In general, a housing agency or subsidized owner should not tell you that its staff cannot see you if you do not provide your own translator. If no translator is immediately available, staff should arrange another time to see you when they can make a translator available.

Because larger housing agencies have more staff and financial resources and work with large numbers of people with limited English proficiency, they will have a greater obligation to provide language assistance than smaller housing agencies that have fewer resources. If you believe that a housing agency or subsidized owner receiving federal funds is not complying with the law, you or your advocate can file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights. The complaint form is available in English and Spanish from the federal Office of Civil Rights website or you can call (888) 848-5306 for assistance.


26 65 Federal Register 58301 (Sept. 28, 2000).

27 760 C.M.R. § 8.04(2). See also G.L. c. 6A, § 16C.

28 A housing authority's knowledge that a person is unlawfully present in the United States can be gained only during the housing authority's appeal process, if an applicant appeals the denial of housing. 65 Federal Register 58301 (Sept. 28, 2000).

29 64 Federal Register 28676 (May 26, 1999 HUD PIH Notice 99-28 (July 15, 1999) See also U.S.C.I.S. Fact Sheet on Public Charge.

30 INS Field Guidance on Deportability and Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, published at 64 Fed. Reg. 28689 (March 26, 1999).

31 24 C.F.R. § 5.216(a)(2).

32 DHCD Public Housing Notice 2004-05 (June 29, 2004), states: “Although tenants are required by the lease to provide their Social Security number and to authorize use of their Social Security number by the housing authority for verification of income and assets through DOR’s [Department of Revenue] tax system, wage reporting, and bank match systems or similar means of verification, there is no requirement that applicants or tenants have a Social Security number to be eligible or housed.” IMPORTANT: This notice updated as Public Housing Notice 2008-12, on DHCD's website. See section titled Social Security Number, especially: “There is no requirement that applicants or tenants have a social security number to be eligible for state housing. However, if he/she has a social security number, it must be provided.”

33 803 C.M.R. § 3.05(1) provides that agencies running CORI checks must obtain certain information required by the Criminal History Systems Board on its CORI request form; in addition, they may request the Social Security number of the person whose CORI is being sought. The regulation does not require disclosure of the Social Security number, or authorize denial for failure to provide it, where the person is not otherwise required to do so. See also 803 C.M.R. § 5.06(3)(a), which provides that a Social Security number may be one of the personal identifying characteristics used for requesting criminal records from other states, as authorized by federal law for most federally assisted housing. Here again, if the person has certified that no Social Security number is assigned, this should be sufficient, and other identifying information should be used to help with the criminal records check.

34 Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d et seq.; 28 C.F.R. § 42.104(b)(2 Executive Order 13166. HUD has issued a draft notice of Limited English Proficiency requirements for HUD-assisted programs at 68 Federal Register 70968 (Dec. 19, 2003 it is not clear if or when HUD may issue a final notice. These items, as well as other very useful and practical materials, can be found at: Limited English Proficiency website. For commonly asked questions on Executive Order 13166, go to: United States Department of Justice: Civil Rights Division.

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