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Welfare And Immigration

In 1875, the United States passed the first of many restrictive laws intended to keep out certain aliens. A powerful force behind federal legislation has always been widespread hostility toward some new arrivals. Disliking everything from skin color to habits of speech, appearance, and worship, citizens have consistently opposed certain immigrants: the Irish in the 1800s, Jews and Slavs in the early twentieth century, and Southeast Asians subsequently. Illegal aliens have upset many U.S. citizens for decades. Since the late 1980s, a new theme has entered public discussion: opposing WELFARE benefits to legal immigrants.

Opponents of providing welfare for immigrants usually voiced such opposition within a general context of opposition to the welfare system. The influential conservative author George Will argued that aliens are brainwashed in much the same way as poor U.S. citizens—into believing that welfare is a normal way of life. "Today immigrants are received in a welfare culture that encourages an entitlement mentality," Will wrote. The notion of an "entitlement mentality" is well-established in the anti-welfare camp, where it is believed that government has erred by creating a mindset of casual acceptance among recipients of benefits. This view does not discriminate between citizens and aliens. It holds that welfare is equally wrong for both because it creates dependence over several generations and leads, as the prominent critic Charles Murray has asserted, to social ills such as crime, drug addiction, and illegitimate children. Moderates, such as President BILL CLINTON, embrace this analysis to a degree, yet remain less inclined than conservatives to support eliminating welfare completely.

Welfare is a jumping-off point for a broader attack on federal immigration law. If welfare is a mistaken policy, it follows that any immigration policy that creates new dependents is itself flawed.

Does U.S. policy create new dependents? The major emphasis of the 1990 Immigration Act (Pub. L. 101–649, Nov. 29, 1990, 104 Stat. 4978) was on family unification: it stressed immigration by relatives of U.S. citizens and resident aliens, the majority of whom were generally granted visas as long as they did not become "public charges,"that is, welfare recipients. Immigrants were supposed to meet this requirement by having a sponsor family that would help feed, clothe, and care for them. Despite this requirement, federal data suggested that many immigrants became public charges anyway. In early 1995, the GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE (GAO) reported that 6 percent of legal immigrants were receiving assistance, as opposed to only 3.4 percent of citizens.

To the most outspoken critics, the United States was clearly welcoming the wrong immigrants. Instead of opening its doors to just anyone, they argued, the nation should be more selective. "Today's laws," Investor's Business Daily editorialized in 1995, "… perversely favor immigrants from the Third World over others with higher skills and greater under-standing of Western culture." The newspaper bemoaned this "low-skilled tide" for "push[ing] down the wages of poorer Americans." Not only did the conservative financial press make this argument; the left-wing magazine of opinion, The Nation, also repeated it, with a slightly different emphasis on race. Immigrants have "pushed blacks out of the marketplace altogether," the writer Wanda Coleman asserted in 1993. The economist Simon Kuznets and the author Peter Brimelow have tied the relative economic progress of African Americans to the dramatic decline in immigration between 1920 and 1965.

Some advocates of immigration reform went farther. The American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative think tank, called for dumping the family-reunification goal for a system based on "designer immigration": admitting better-educated immigrants. This case is made in detail in a 1995 book called The Immigration Wave: A Plea to Hold It Back, by Brimelow, himself an immigrant from England. Brimelow contended that the future is bleak: by the year 2050, the U.S. population will be nearly 400 million, and over one-third of it will be low-skilled immigrants who arrived after 1970. Unlike the one-third of the immigrant population that came during the great wave between 1890 and 1920 and then returned home, these men, women, and children will have stayed because of the welfare system. "The failures are no longer winnowed out," Brimelow wrote. "Instead, they are encouraged to stay—at the expense of the American taxpayer." Only a designer approach can prevent a "bureaucratically-regulated racial spoils system."

Of course, there was another side to the debate. Reviewing The Immigration Wave, the author Richard Bernstein criticized Brimelow for ignoring "the genuinely moving spectacle of millions of people making better lives for themselves in this country than they could in the countries they came from."Writing in the New York Times, Nathan Glazer expressed regret over an increasingly agitated tone in the debate: "[W]e will all have to keep our heads and remember that we all came from someplace else." Such sentiments have long informed arguments in favor of immigration—namely, that it is generous and humanitarian.

Sharper attacks on the reformers came from the political left. In 1993, the New Left Review defended immigration by blasting public selfishness in the form of "the fiscal constraints on public spending imposed by conservative, suburban voters." Instead of restricting immigration, the Progressive magazine urged President Clinton to "try to ease the economic deprivations and political persecutions the United States has fostered around the globe, which themselves have propelled much of the immigration to this country."

This debate set the stage for the changes in welfare for legal immigrants that were made in the 1990s. The reform efforts began in California: in 1994, nearly two-thirds of the state's voters passed Proposition 187 (CA Prop. 187[1994], 1994 Cal. Legis. Serv. Prop. 187 [WEST]), a law intended to deny education and public assistance to illegal aliens. The biggest appeal of Proposition 187 was saving tax dollars. Concerns about heavy state expenditures prompted California and Florida to bring unsuccessful lawsuits in the early 1990s, demanding reimbursement from the federal government, alleging that the federal failure to enforce immigration laws had saddled the states with incredible debts. Although the proposition was not aimed at legal immigrants, its success with voters prompted some observers to regard it as a symptom of increasing intolerance toward immigration in general. However, a federal district court decision in 1995, League of United Latin American Citizensv. Wilson, 908 F.Supp. 755, C.D.Cal (1995), prevented it from going into effect, by ruling that most of the law was preempted by federal immigration law.

In 1996, the federal government passed the far-reaching welfare reform act known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (Pub. L. 104–193 Aug. 22, 1996, 110 Stat. 2105). The new welfare law particularly affected immigrants. Under the law, immigrants who entered the United States legally after August 22, 1996, were prohibited for at least five years from receiving federal, non-emergency, means-tested benefits, including MEDICAID and the services funded by federal block grants. Additionally, immigrants were barred from two other programs, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and food stamps, until they either became United States citizens or worked in the country for 40 qualifying quarters (8 USCA § 1601 et. seq.).

The reforms did not stop there. After the five-year ban expired, it was up to the states to determine what welfare to give new immigrants. States had the option of denying non-emergency Medicaid to most new arrivals even after the five-year ban was over. States could also bar immigrants from participating in any of the benefit programs financed by Title XX block grants, such as CHILD CARE, in-home assistance for DISABLED PERSONS, and support services for abused and neglected children. Finally, states could exclude most current and future immigrants from other state-funded benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Three groups of noncitizens were exempted from disqualification: (1) REFUGEES, ASYLUM seekers, and aliens granted withholding of deportation during the first five years after receiving the immigration benefit; (2) permanent resident aliens if they have worked 40 qualifying quarters as defined by the SOCIAL SECURITY ACT; and (3) an alien and his or her family if the alien lawfully resides in the United States and is on active duty in the military or has received an honorable discharge. Proponents suggested a variety of reasons for enacting these reforms, most embodied in the arguments against welfare for immigrants listed above. Some also alluded to a monetary factor: the immigrant restrictions accounted for almost half the total federal savings from the welfare reform law.

The provisions of the PRWORA that deal with immigrants were generally seen as the harshest part of the act and were opposed by a wide variety of groups. President Bill Clinton, who signed the PRWORA into law, made it clear he dis-agreed with its provisions for cutting immigrant benefits and campaigned against them in the 1996 election. Immigrant rights groups filed CLASS ACTION lawsuits, and the state of Florida filed its own lawsuit, worried that its taxpayers would end up supporting immigrants who had been cut off from federal benefits.

As a result, Congress modified some of the harsher aspects of the law. As part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the law restored SSI to those immigrants who were receiving SSI as of August 22, 1996. It also allowed immigrants residing in the United States on August 22, 1996, to be eligible for SSI if they became disabled in the future. New immigrants were still not eligible for SSI, nor would earlier immigrants be eligible in the future based on their age.

Then, in 1998, Congress decided to partially restore food stamps by reinstating eligibility for legal immigrant children and elderly persons who were legal immigrants as of August 22, 1996. This action readmitted approximately 250,000 immigrants who were excluded under the 1996 law. In addition, some states, such as Washington, have attempted to restore at least partial food stamp benefits to immigrants who were not covered by the 1998 legislation.

But other attempts to restore benefits at the federal level have failed, for example one in 2002. Interestingly, at least one study released by the Center for Immigrant Studies in 2003 claimed that the welfare reform act had failed to reduce immigrant usage of welfare programs. The study found that while immigrant usage of programs such as food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families had fallen, this had been offset by increased use of MEDICARE by immigrants, with the net percentage of immigrants using welfare programs remaining the same as it was before welfare reforms were passed in 1996.


Camarota, Steven A. 2003. "Back Where We Started: An Examination of Trends in Immigrant Welfare Use since Welfare Reform." Center for Immigration Studies (March).

Dodson, Marvin E. 2001. "Welfare Generosity and Location Choices among United States Immigrants." International Review of Law and Economics 21 (March).

McCurdy, Thomas, and Margaret O'Brien-Strain. 1998. "Reform Reversed? The Restoration of Welfare Benefits to Immigrants in California." Public Policy Institute of California.

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