The political climate involving immigration in the mid-1990s was starkly different from what we see today, with one of the big issues being welfare usage. The issue died down in 1996 for reasons I’ll analyze below, but with the Center for Immigration Studies’ release last week of a new study, the controversy has returned, with counteranalyses by supporters of high-level immigration, and a CIS rejoinder.
I’ll have some comments in the CIS study later in this post, but first want to discuss the history, to put all this in context.
During the 90s I did extensive research on one aspect of immigration welfare use, public assistance usage by elderly immigrants, including Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI). Though SSI’s name sounds like “social security” and it is indeed run by the Social Security Administration, it is in fact welfare, the means-tested public assistance program for our aged poor.
SSI was intended, as its name implies, as a supplement for older Americans who somehow did not have sufficient resources to live on. But immigrant community groups, responding to encouragement of the federal government, started widely promoting the program among elderly immigrants in the early 1990s. The old folks were immigrating to the U.S. after retirement age, and thus were ineligible for Social Security and Medicare, having never worked in the U.S.
The response in some immigrant communities was overwhelming. Now it was feasible to bring over Grandpa and Grandma to the U.S., with the advance intention of putting them on welfare, including by the way not just SSI and Medicaid but also subsidized housing for the poor and so on. Stanford Professor Tom MaCurdy, on whom I’ll say more below, remarked that he was shocked when one of his grad students told him that her Indian parents were coming to the U.S. to avail themselves of a “pension,” which turned out to be SSI.
Recently Jeb Bush made some poorly-phrased remarks on Asian “anchor babies.” What he said was absolutely correct, but unfortunately he phrased it in an us-(Latinos)-versus-them manner that made me wince. In that light, rhough, I reluctantly note that the top immigrant SSI user groups per capita as of the 1990s were the Chinese and Koreans. Nationwide, the Chinese and Korean rates were 47% and 50%, while the next-closest group was the Filipinos at 39%. Donald Trump may be surprised that the Mexican rate was only 21% (though it would not surprise Jeb Bush, because a social worker explained to me that Latinos pride in taking care of their seniors themselves).
Picture the Chinese and Koreans taking the legendary energy they use in academics and business, and now applying that energy to promoting welfare usage by the old folks, and then you’ll understand the enormous drive to get immigrants to sign up for SSI. The Chinese community organizations, such as Self Help for the Elderly (yes, an ironic name) in San Francisco, the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles and the City Hall Senior Center in New York’s Chinatown, pulled out all the stops in promoting SSI, Medicaid and subsidized senior housing (including campaigning for the building of such housing). Chinese-language public service TV programs, such as on Channel 26 KTSF of the Bay Area, would regularly dispense advice on how to obtain these benefits, and the World Journal, the largest Chinese-language newspaper in the U.S., ran a weekly Dear Abby-style advice column on obtaining welfare.
Large numbers of the recipients of assistance arguably didn’t need it. A typical scenario in the Bay Area at the time (and still largely true today) involved a senior on SSI, living with his son and daughter-in-law, both Silicon Valley engineers from China or Taiwan. The son would have applied for the parent for immigration, promising the keep the parent off welfare for 5 years (increased from 3 years by the 1993 legislation), but would have planned ahead of time to put the parent on welfare after that. All perfectly legal, mind you. Statistical and qualitative details are available in my 1996 Senate testimony.
The non-native usage of SSI skyrocketed, and this attracted the attention of Congress, which began a series of reforms. Though these reforms are viewed today as coming from the Republicans, they actually were bipartisan. The first came in 1993, when the Democrats held both houses of Congress, as well as the presidency. And though the 1996 legislation was initiated by the Republicans, who then controlled Congress, the Democrats offered a similar, if somewhat less draconian, bill and of course President Bill Clinton signed the Republican version that passed.
The bipartisan nature of the agreement on the welfare issue at the time is hard to imagine today. Democrat Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York and widely viewed as a future presidential candidate, said
Democratic Rep. Mike Honda, then a California state senator, also supported clamping down on immigrant welfare use, specifically regarding the sponsors not supporting their family members as promised. After having been helped into Congress by some influential Asian fundraisers, Honda has had a very different stance ever since.
On the more general issue of immigration, the 1995 Jordan Commission, headed by a prominent liberal member of the House (with Vice Chair Michael Teitelbaum, known to some readers here), recommended major reforms in order to reduce the problem of “chain migration” — immigrant X brings in his brother Y and Mrs. Y, then Y brings in her sister Z, whose husband later brings in his elderly mother, etc. Among others things, the commission recommended eliminating the Fourth Preference category, under which adult naturalized citizens can petition for the immigration of their adult siblings. In 1996 President Clinton was ready to support these recommendations, and the immigration reform groups were elated. The head of one such group even wondered if his organization would have anything left to do after the reform would be enacted.
Yet attempts to eliminate the Fourth Preference, going back to the 1980s (when it was the Fifth Preference) had been repeatedly defeated by the Chinatown immigrant advocacy groups. For these activists, it was literally the case that their jobs would be on the line if the Fourth Preference were to be eliminated, or access to SSI rescinded. Yvonne Lee, a Chinese activist considered to be the community’s pipeline to the White House (and appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by Clinton), stated in an interview on KTSF in 1995 that if restrictions were placed on subsidized housing, “Our Chinatown will have a big problem [of underpopulation].” Lee later told AsianWeek in 1997,
…[given the new restrictions against welfare use by future immigrants] how many people are going to take the risk of sponsoring someone [for immigration] and what long-term impact will that have on our social status and political empowerment?
So the activists redoubled their efforts. The Urban Institute got involved on their side (the Chinese organizations were a paid client, if I recall right). Much more important, some ethnic Chinese with monetary clout started making big donations to the Democrats. Some of the donations were actually illegal, resulting in scandal, but my point here is that the efforts, both legal and otherwise, convinced Clinton to change his mind about immigration. The Fourth Preference remains in place today, and though it now takes longer to be eligible for SSI, the immigrant seniors and their adult sons and daughters are willing to wait for it. Chinatowns are not underpopulated.
Under the 1996 welfare reform act, an immigrant must naturalize in order to qualify for SSI — and that is exactly what they did, upon enactment of the statute. A study found that “The national origin groups most likely to receive public assistance in the pre-[legislation] period experienced the largest increases in naturalization rates after 1996.” In the Bay Area, a household in which both husband and wife are high-salary immigrant Silicon Valley engineers, but who have their elderly parents on SSI, is still the norm.
Even I, who see instances of this all the time, was taken aback a couple of weeks ago when I was in a public library in the East Bay City of Fremont, a Chinese and Indian stronghold. In the couple of hours I was there, several times a librarian got onto the public address system to announce that that day a government specialist in SSI would be coming to answer questions from seniors and their families.
Now turning to the CIS report, the critics’ highlighted argument is that CIS was wrong to tabulate at the household level. But at the CIS report author Steve Camarota points out, this is absolutely standard, and makes sense for the reasons cited. In addition to the examples given, the household approach was used by the Urban Institute people, who were supporting the Chinese. In fact, the pro-immigration Stanford professor Tom MaCurdy, writing for the pro-immigration think tank PPIC, recommended that eligibility for SSI be made on the household level.
Camarota also refutes the scenario offered by CIS’ critics, in which a family is headed by an immigrant but in which the kids are citizens. The critics say welfare usage by the kids shouldn’t be counted as “immigrant welfare.” But Camarota points out that the householder is the breadwinner, and if his failure to support the kids results in their using welfare, it should indeed be counted in the immigrant column. I would add that the same holds for the SSI setting: The U.S. citizen brought his parents here, knowing that they would not be able to support themselves, and would eventually go on welfare. So, if the parents are living in this household, it too should count in the immigrant column, even though the householder is a citizen.
CIS’ critics claim that the immigrants who use welfare are not doing anything out of line, as they are poor, and poor people sometimes use welfare. I largely agree with that, but there is much more to it than that.
They are often not so poor after all. In the case of SSI, my illustrations above, and the corresponding data in my Senate testimony, show that it often happens that there are welfare recipients in households headed by the well-educated. MaCurdy’s study found similarly that a large portion of the immigrant SSI recipients live in above-average income households.
In addition, there is the issue of sponsors, especially in the case of immigration of the elderly. When someone immigrates past retirement age, it is obvious that they almost certainly will need to use welfare, in SSI, Medicaid and so on. The sponsor’s legal responsibility should be permanent, but unfortunately it is not.
My personal view has always been that our immigration policy should welcome a broad socioeconomic range of immigrants, and if some may need occasional welfare assistance, they should not be barred from it (except if they have family sponsors). But these costs should be factored in a national discussion on immigration policy — if we were ever to have one.