Although the United States’ welfare rolls are already swollen, every year we import more people who wind up on public assistance: immigrants. Many immigrants are poor; indeed, that is why they come here. The immigrants we admit are much poorer than the native population and are increasing the size of our impoverished population. As a result, the share of immigrant households below the poverty line (18 percent) is much higher than the share of native households that are poor (11 percent)—nearly twice as high. And immigrant households are more likely to participate in practically every one of the major means-tested programs. Immigrant use of welfare programs (21 percent) is 43 percent higher than non-immigrants’ use (15 percent).1

Each year, state governments spend an estimated $11 billion to $22 billion to provide welfare to immigrants.2

Why Are Immigrants On Welfare?

Some people mistakenly think that immigrants are not eligible for welfare. Several years ago, Congress did attempt to render immigrants ineligible for most forms of welfare. However, subsequent backpedaling by Congress and the executive branch has undone most of those reforms. Furthermore, many immigrant families get welfare through the eligibility of their U.S. citizen children. (It is also important to realize that even when immigrants are ineligible for federal welfare programs, the burden of their support is simply shifted over to the state and local welfare agencies.)

Refugees, asylees, and all amnestied illegal aliens are exempt from the public charge requirement.3 Congress has decided that the American people will serve as the sponsors for these immigrants and pick up the tab for their support.

All other immigrants must pass a public charge test and have a U.S. sponsor or sponsors willing to pledge their income to support them. Before a potential immigrant receives an immigration visa, American consular officers are supposed to evaluate whether he or she is likely to become a public charge, and, if so, to deny the visa. The consular officer is supposed to take into account a variety of factors: the amount of support the sponsor can give, the resources and skills of the applicant, and any special conditions (such as age or infirmity) that might affect the applicant’s need for support. The Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 set the new legal standard for the evaluation: the sponsor of the applicant must have an annual income of at least 125 percent of the federally designated poverty level. There are several problems with this standard:

  • The sponsorship income level, only 25 percent higher than the poverty level, is so low that it does not prevent immigrants from going on welfare; in fact, it almost guarantees it. Say a sponsor begins with an income of 200 percent of poverty level and is, therefore, not considered “legally poor.” But after splitting that income with the immigrant, each will be at 100 percent of the poverty level. Where before we had one non-poor person, now we have two poor people. Since eligibility for some welfare programs kicks in before one’s income drops to 125 percent of poverty level, immigrants can easily wind up on welfare.
  • While immigrants who receive welfare can be deported for violating the conditions under which they were admitted, this provision is rarely enforced; in fact, only twelve people have been deported under this provision since 1980.4 Administrative rulings have held that an immigrant cannot be held responsible for receiving welfare unless the welfare agencies have sent the immigrant a bill for their services, demanded payment, and been refused payment.5 Since welfare agencies do not do this, it is virtually impossible for an immigrant to be charged with violating the public charge provisions that can lead to deportation.
  • Furthermore, numerous forms of welfare are not considered under the public charge test, including food stamps, pre-natal care, nutrition programs, housing assistance, energy assistance, job training programs, child care services, free or reduced school lunch, public shelters, health clinics, Medicaid, and any cash welfare programs that are not the family’s sole source of income.6 This insulates immigrants from being considered public charges unless they are completely dependent on welfare.

What Types of Welfare Are Immigrants Eligible For?

As of the 1996 welfare reform bill, the following applies to eligibility for federal and state funded welfare programs:

  • Legal immigrants are barred from all federal means-tested public benefits for five years after entering the country and barred from SSI and food stamps until citizenship. They are also barred from all federal means-tested public benefits for five years.7
  • Benefits available to immigrants include school lunch and breakfast programs, immunizations, emergency medical services, disaster relief, and others programs that are necessary to protect life and safety as identified by the attorney general, regardless of immigration status.8
  • Illegal immigrants are barred from the following federal public benefits: grants, contracts, loans, licenses, retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post secondary education, food assistance, and unemployment benefits. States are barred from providing state or locally funded benefits to illegal immigrants unless a state law is enacted granting such authority.9

Welfare Reform Failed to Solve the Problem

Despite expectations that the 1996 welfare reform bill would cause significant changes in immigrant welfare use, it has actually remained at the same level. The 1996 welfare reforms failed because while the legislation cut immigrants off from certain welfare programs, the savings that resulted from those cuts were not high enough to offset the increased usage of the remaining programs, due to the continuing high number of immigrants entering the U.S. every year.

While both Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and food stamp use have declined by four percent, the decline did not result in any significant savings, as those costs were offset by increases in Medicaid use, which has increased among immigrant households. The total combined value of benefits and payments received by immigrant households from welfare programs remained almost the same, averaging almost $2,000 in 2001, about 50 percent higher than natives. Such high rates of immigrant welfare use, combined with the rapidly increasing immigrant population, has resulted in a four percent increase in the number of immigrant households on welfare, from 14 percent in 1996 to 18 percent in 2000.10

Outlook for the Future

The highest welfare use rates for immigrants are in New York (30 percent), California (28 percent), Massachusetts (25 percent), and Texas (25 percent).12

Immigrants are eleven percent of our population, but they are 20 percent of the poor population. Unless our immigration policies are reevaluated and changed accordingly, welfare usage and subsequent costs will remain high.

Instead of addressing the problem, some in Congress have suggested measures that would make it even worse, such as proposals to increase immigrants’ eligibility for benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that making legal immigrants eligible for Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) would cost an estimated $2.24 billion over ten years.11

If we are to have any hope of reducing poverty in the U.S., our immigration laws must be revised and returned to the sensible practice of excluding aliens who are likely to become public charges and to deport those who do.