Will Welfare Reform Hurt Legal Immigrants?

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Just how tough is the new welfare reform law on foreigners who are legally in the United States?

Well, it does bar them from Supplemental Security Income payments and food stamps - but that doesn't include refugees or those granted political asylum for the first five years they're in this country. Neither does it include veterans or those who have worked here at least 10 years. And children are not barred from the school lunch program or Head Start.

But the law will deny SSI payments and food stamps to thousands of older people who have come here - often at the invitation of relatives - after a working life spent in another country. Before the new welfare law went into effect, fully 23% of noncitizens age 65 or older received SSI benefits.

Incredibly, more than half of all SSI spending on seniors had been going to noncitizens - who generally received checks about twice as big as those going to citizens. This was because SSI payments are reduced by the amount of Social Security income received, and most of the noncitizens had worked little or none in the United States, and so Social Security payments were not applicable.

President Clinton has proposed returning $21 billion of the $55 billion in savings under the new welfare bill, with most of it going to increase welfare spending on noncitizens. However, increasing welfare for noncitizens would take U.S. immigration policy backward and send the wrong signal to potential future immigrants.

According to the General Accounting Office, the number of noncitizens on SSI more than tripled between 1986 and 1996, going from 244,000 to 800,000. As a result, the federal government spent about $8 billion on welfare services for noncitizens in 1995 - almost half of it for SSI, according to the 1996 Green Book.

In an effort to rein in these expenses and return American immigration policy to its historic roots, Congress has tried to eliminate welfare as a financial incentive for coming to America. In fact, U.S. immigration law has always provided that going on welfare is grounds for deportation.

While states fear they may have to pick up the slack, the new law took their plight into consideration. To begin with, states have a lot of flexibility to direct state money and even some of the federal dollars toward those most in need. For example, they can continue providing cash or services with the money that comes from the federal government's block grants - which are based on past allocations that included money for immigrant populations.

The legislation denies most newly arriving legal immigrants immediate access to most federal welfare programs - primarily to discourage immigration solely to go on welfare. However, some of the restrictions are temporary. For example, new immigrants cannot qualify for Medicaid, but states have the option of waiving that restriction after they have lived here five years. Of course, they still have access to emergency care.

But for those concerned about harming immigrants, one point should be emphasized: Were the aliens to become U.S. citizens, many of the problems would be solved. While there is a five-year waiting period before applying - though the immigration service permits some exceptions to the process - most of the legal immigrants who are losing welfare benefits have chosen to both remain citizens of another country and receive welfare dollars from American taxpayers.

While a strong case can be made that we should take care of elderly and poor Americans, it is less clear that we have a moral obligation to take care of those who choose to live with us but decline to be part of us. That is not xenophobia, it is just common sense.

"Once this new law - which simply reestablishes the basis of U.S. immigration policy for more than 100 years - becomes widely understood, it will fundamentally change the nature of the immigrants coming to America," says Rep. Clay Shaw (R-FL), who worked extensively on the bill. "It gives immigrants an opportunity to work for a better life for themselves and their families."

By reserving welfare entitlement for citizens and noncitizens who work and support our country, we remove a strong incentive for people to cross our border or bring their family members - especially senior family members - for the wrong reasons. After all, the promise of America is the hope of a better life through a regular paycheck, not a regular welfare check.