Immigrant Use of Welfare — the Back Story

In searching for an example in a recent Twitter discussion on the Trump administration’s new proposed welfare policy for green card applicants, I stumbled upon this 2013 Canadian Broadcasting Corp. article, titled “Don’t Bring Parents Here for Welfare, Kenney Says: Immigration minister cites ‘abuse of Canada’s generosity’ as changes to family reunification program announced.”

Strong stuff. Hard to imagine what would happen if USCIS Directory Francis Cissna were to use language like that. The immediate reaction would prominently feature the word racist, and maybe even impeach. But to see this from a government minister in the putatively immigrant-welcoming nation of Canada is nothing short of mind-boggling to us immigration researchers.

Until, that is, one reads the details, particularly this passage:

Kenney said the number of older immigrants allowed into Canada must be limited because of the burden they place on the health-care system and other social resources. A set of grandparents could cost the system $400,000, he noted.

$400,000 per elderly immigrant couple! As one person noted in that Twitter exchange, just think how many of the native poor could be helped with that money?

The biggest criticism of the new Trump proposal is that it “suddenly” includes non-cash forms of assistance as welfare in determining who is a “public charge.” But as Mark Krikorian’s article explains, this really is not a radical change from US policy for more than a century.

But more than that, note that the above $400,000 figure is for “the health-care system and other social resources,” the latter including what is called “social housing,” i.e. government-subsidized housing. That is a staggering amount of money, and the fact that it may mostly go to non-cash assistance is irrelevant.

It’s not just the expense, but the effect on scarce resources. In the Bay Area, there are multi-year waits for senior housing, for instance, and since many of the tenants are immigrants, this is causing major hardship for many natives.

My aim here is not to defend the Trump proposal, which I have not yet read, and which focuses on a rather narrow class of foreign nationals, but to explain why this is such an important issue. It is especially important in the case of elderly immigrants, who clearly cannot be self-supporting in most instances.  The seniors are typically sponsored by their adult sons and daughters, who sign affidavits promising to keep the parents off welfare, but the law is riddled with loopholes, both in the US and apparently Canada.

It was thus the elderly use of welfare that sparked the calls for reform in the US, which began in 1993. Note carefully that the Democrats were in control of both the White House and Congress at the time. An administration study found that cash welfare use by immigrant seniors had skyrocketed in the last few years, and the Dems were outraged. They tightened up sponsorship requirements somewhat, and then a more draconian bill was enacted in 1996 (Republican bill signed by Bill Clinton, though the Democratic alternative was only slightly milder).

I viewed all of this rather close to the action. I had done my own study, both statistical and with field interviews, and testified to the House in 1994 and the Senate in 1996. In the latter year, I was also approached by the Clinton White House and consulted with them for a while, in a back-and-forth involving the Urban Institute.

One of the major points in my analysis was data showing that the elderly immigrant recipients of SSI tended to have well-off sons and daughters. This is a big point, as the welfare reform bills, both Democratic and Republican, then being formulated, would come down harshly on the native, low-skilled, low-education poor. To continue to allow the immigrant parents of Silicon Valley engineers stay on the dole while throw poor natives out in the snow would have been egregiously unfair.

Let me be clear: Many immigrants themselves highly resented this abuse, as can be seen in this transcript of a Chinese-language radio program in San Francisco on which I appeared at the time. In other words, the Chinese-immigrant rank and file’s view was entirely opposite to that of the Chinese-American political activists, who howled when reform legislation was proposed. (As I recall, the activists had commissioned the Urban Institute to advocate for them.)

On the other hand…

To penalize working-class immigrants (or in the Trump proposal’s case, applicants for immigration) is, excuse the bold face, blaming the victim. Again, just look at the Bay Area. Low-skilled immigrants are hit with a double whammy: Because of overly high levels of immigration, working-class immigrants are paid lower and lower wages. Meanwhile, also because of high levels of immigration, housing costs in the Bay Area are soaring higher and higher. The natural, understandable result is the low-skilled immigrants need welfare — cash, medical care, housing assistance, food stamps and so on — in order to survive, in spite of working very hard.

All of this, then, is no less than an indictment of our overall immigration policy. A rational analysis, based on full facts, would balance generosity and a sense of humanity with what we can afford and with a recognition of the impacts on both natives and earlier immigrants. But with today’s ultra-politicized climate, rational decision making is sadly out of the question.

One more point on the politics, an interesting irony: As Mark Krikorian’s article points out, the US law on the public-charge criterion was enacted way back in 1882. His point is that the Trump proposal merely implements policy that has been followed for 136 years. Fine, but guess what! That same year, 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigration from China. University Asian-American Studies classes offer the Act as a prime example of America’s racist history. Once the ethnic activists realize this connection to public-charge policy, they will argue, not entirely without justification, that the current Trump proposal for strict enforcement of the public-charge provision was enacted by a racist Congress, rendering the Trump policy morally invalid. Just sayin’…





H.R. 392 (eliminates country caps…)

For some time, activist groups such as Immigration Voice (IV) have lobbied Congress to change the law on green cards. Specifically, the statute limits nationals (by birth) of each country in the world to 20,000 green cards per year. Since the dominant nationality among H-1Bs is Indian (with Chinese a distant second), the same is true for applications for employer-sponsored green cards. This has created longer and longer backlogs, with waits exceeding 10 years or, according to some estimates, forever.

(Note by the way that the employers in question are the “Intels,” i.e. mainstream firms, large and small, who hire foreign students at U.S. campuses and eventually sponsoring them for green cards. The “Infosyses,” i.e. outsourcing firms, only rarely sponsor their foreign workers for green cards.)

IV has been lobbying Congress for years for a remedy, and they were excited to see it finally materialize as H.R. 392, which (not surprisingly) now seems stalled.

I’ve been neutral on the bill, preferring to point out that if the employer-sponsored green card programs were limited to their putative goals — remedying labor shortages and bringing in “the best and the brightest” — there would be no backlog. Back in the 80s, say, a typical wait would be a year or two, and with a decent reform to H-1B and the EB-series green cards, we could easily achieve this.

Although my stance on the bill has been neutral, I have expressed irritation with some foreign workers who refuse to acknowledge that the H-1B and green card programs do have many American (US citizens and permanent residents) victims, for whom the bill’s title, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017, sounds rather Orwellian.

With this in mind, I was rather startled to see this article from the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group concerned with the influence of monied groups in politics. The opening paragraphs sound more like an IV plant than a piece on money on the Hill. The material on lobbying does not appear until the eighth ‘graph, but once it begins, it is interesting and informative.

What is most interesting to me, though, is the article’s excellent coverage of an aspect that I have often highlighted over the years (emphasis added):

According to [IV co-founder Aman] Kapoor, the Indian backlog problem is self-sustaining. People with H-1B status can’t switch jobs for fear of losing their place in line, so some employers seek out Indian candidates to take advantage of their H-1B status and their hopes of receiving a green card. Companies can hire them at entry-level salaries and keep them for a cheap and consistent price, even as they accrue on-the-job experience that might make them more valuable employees. Because their green card applications are attached to their job title, Indian workers can be stuck in the same position for years or decades, unable to accept a pay raise or promotion without starting the whole process over.

Excellent, succinct analysis, but I would replace “some employers” by “many employers, including the big household name firms.” As I wrote for instance in my HuffPo op-ed,

This immobility is of huge value to many employers, as it means that a foreign worker can’t leave them in the lurch in the midst of an urgent project. In a 2012 meeting between Google and several researchers, including myself, the firm explained the advantage of hiring foreign workers: the company can’t prevent the departure of Americans, but the foreign workers are stuck. David Swaim, an immigration lawyer who designed Texas Instruments’ immigration policy and is now in private practice, overtly urges employers to hire foreign students instead of Americans.

This candid statement by Google (which they volunteered, not in response to a question) should have been a bombshell, appearing in a prominent outlet.  Reporters should have been beating a path to my door, asking me for details.  No one ever has, including the ones who contacted me about H-1B because they had seen the HuffPo piece. Go figure.

Ironically, the only one who has ever responded on this was Rep. Ro Khanna,     during the debate between him and me sponsored by the Voice of America.  He DID see that it was a bombshell, and as a staunch advocate for the tech industry he was quite angry at my stating it.  Here is an excerpt from my report on the debate:     

Khanna reacted quite sharply to this, his voice rising. ‘This is a very serious charge! You have no proof! Who at Google said this? What are their names?’ I replied that I had stated this publicly before without objection from Google,and then said, ‘I’ll give you the name of the HR person, who by the way is now at Facebook. You should call Google.’ But of course he did not take me up on the offer.

Here we have a major, indeed iconic, Silicon Valley firm admitting to giving hiring preference to foreign workers. To me, the failure of the press to follow up on such a tantalizing lead is mystifying.

The article also notes that the bill’s shorter waits for Indians would result in longer waits for others, citing Iranians as an example. One can debate what is really “fair” here, but the salient issue is this: If H.R. 392 were ever to be enacted (possibly as part of another bill), Congress would feel it would be forced to enact a companion measure, the so-called Staple a Green Card policy. The latter would grant blanket permanent residency to all STEM graduate students at US schools (“stapling a green card to their diplomas”). Arguably H.R. 392, by simply “rearranging the deck chairs,” would have no adverse impact on U.S. workers, but Staple’s harm on the Americans would be severe, as I have written before.

There is no better example of “the devil is in the details” than H-1B/green card policy.

Crazy Hypocritical

I’ve often written that the word Asian is misused, often for calculated political reasons. For instance, in the currently pending lawsuit against Harvard’s admissions affirmative action (AA) policies, the claim is discrimination against Asian-American applicants, yet the anti-AA movement has been mostly Chinese. Indeed, for the most part, Indian- and other South Asian-Americans have been conspicuously absent, in spite of similar demographics. It’s natural that the anti-AA people want the broader “Asian” umbrella, but this example shows that the term can be misleading.

Another interesting example, pointed out in The Economist‘s September 1 issue, is the movie Crazy Rich Asians. Many Asian-American activists, again mainly Chinese, have praised the film for having an “all-Asian” cast. They had complained for years, quite justifiably, that Hollywood has typically portrayed Asians in negative roles, say menial workers. Now, finally, an “Asian” movie is out, and enjoying high box office success.

Well, not quite, says Banyan of The Economist, writing on how some view the film in multi-ethnic Singapore, the setting of the film. The main characters are ethnic Chinese (though the male lead is half Malay, half white). The Economist, not a publication that plays up identity politics, writes:

For plenty of Asians, the film is more of an affront than a triumph…the film ignores all Asians other than the Chinese kind. One-quarter of Singapore’s population is not Chinese but of Malay or Indian descent. Yet when Malays feature, it is as valet-parking attendants, Indonesians as masseuses…Sikh guards [are portrayed as] buffoonish…What passes for victory in Hollywood can look like a glaring failure in Singapore.

Not sure how Banyan got wind of this, but it’s an important point.

Chain Migration

One of the aims of the White House immigration proposal is to reduce chain migration — John immigrates to the US, then sponsors his wife Mary, who sponsors her brother Bill and so on. As one goes through the chain, the connection to John becomes weaker and weaker, at some point becoming nil.

Ironically, you’ll find no better example of chain migration than this article extolling it. This passage says it all:

The young engineer arrived in America when he was 23 with a good education and little else. He landed a job at a nuclear test site, and built a home in Nevada. Between the 1970s and the mid-1980s, he brought his wife, mother, five sisters and a brother over from India, his native land.

In later years, his siblings sponsored family members of their own, and their clan now stretches from Nevada to Florida, New Jersey to Texas — more than 90 Americans nurtured on the strength of one ambitious engineer, Jagdish Patel, 72.

90! Mr. Patel sounds content and proud, as he well should be. But the implication that that nuclear test site couldn’t have filled its position had he not been available is of course false. Moreover, if any of those 90 people immigrated at or near retirement age, it is very likely that they used government services — cash in SSI, health care in Medicaid, access to subsidized senior housing and so on. (Many government-supported senior housing facilities are heavily populated by immigrants with little or no work experience in the U.S.  This is causing long waiting lists, with many people, native or immigrant, who did work in the U.S. now being frozen out.)

In the last 10 years or so, there is been bipartisan support for ending the core driver of chain migration, the Fourth Preference, under which naturalized citizens can sponsor their adult siblings for green cards — until now. Today, with both parties refusing to cooperate on immigration (and virtually everything else), the Democrats hope people won’t remember the Dems’ past stance, and are treating ending the Fourth Preference as Evil Incarnate.

For the record, I’ll remind everyone that I do not like elitist policies, and thus I oppose the Trump immigration reform proposal. But that doesn’t mean I support the fallacious arguments against it.

Lawsuit Against Harvard Admissions

Haven’t had much time to post here recently, largely because of travel — in order, China, Chicago, LA, Vancouver BC and Eugene OR. There have been no new developments on the H-1B work visa or other topics that I like to comment on.

However, there is another topic of keen interest to me, Affirmative Action (AA), both in general and especially in college admissions. I’m a strong supporter of AA from way back, so I’ve been quite interested in the lawsuit being brought against Harvard, claiming the latter’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants. (Actually, none of the plaintiffs is Asian, but there are some Asian groups, mainly Chinese-immigrant STEM professionals, supporting the suit.)

In my view, the plaintiffs’ arguments are uninformed, misleading and fallacious. Thus I’ve written a Web page, titled “A Statistician Looks at Affirmative Action in College Admissions,” taking a careful look at the issues. I invite you to take a look, and let me know your comments.