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’…




8 thoughts on “Immigrant Use of Welfare — the Back Story

  1. The income required for sponsorship is far to low at 125% of the federal poverty level (FPL). The income levels for the free/reduced price lunches is 130%/185% of the FPL. The new immigrant immediately can qualify others for welfare programs.

    The income level required assumes that the sponsored individuals will be joining the sponsoring household. This is not necessarily true.

    In my area some medical professionals will not treat Medicare patients but will treat Medicaid patients. An elderly immigrant qualifying for Medicaid who has never worked a single day in the Us can receive care yet a USC who has worked 50 years cannot.

    A different social welfare problem involves the unaccompanied minor illegal present children and legally resident children who must be placed in foster care. In my state there are not enough homes (institutional programs have been closed by court order) for children who are citizens and legal residents.


  2. Note how the preference toward “highly-skilled” (and thus, fairly well-paid) immigrants extends to their older (and thus “on the dole”) relatives. A double-benefit for the H1-B replacement workers, to be apparently accompanied by the double-whammy against the lower-skilled immigrant workers.

    In other words, the immigrants who could MOST likely *afford to pay their relatives’ expenses* get to push that expense onto U.S. taxpayers, while immigrants who could LEAST likely afford to pay, are to be penalized.

    And as you mentioned, Norm, elderly U.S. citizens are already having to wait in line for their chance at subsidized housing — housing that they have already paid for with decades of taxes on their own wages.

    Why does it seem that only us “ordinary folks” outside of the D.C. “reality distortion field” seem to immediately recognize and reject these obviously convoluted and misguided policies??


    • “Why does it seem that only us “ordinary folks” outside of the D.C. “reality distortion field” seem to immediately recognize and reject these obviously convoluted and misguided policies??”
      It is recognized in Washington. But as publicly funded, their concern is only that you keep paying your taxes to fund it. No, I’m not being snarky. Industry calls it “externalizing expenses”.


  3. “the welfare reform bills, both Democratic and Republican, then being formulated, would come down harshly on the native, low-skilled, low-education poor”
    Norm, would you know where I could find more info on what occurred in the 1990s regarding welfare reform? I keep hearing it make things harder, but never ran across details. I’m interested also in a particular aspect, if benefits were cut back due to uptick in economy or just to cut down on welfare use.


  4. “an indictment of our overall immigration policy”
    Policy that’s not enforced. In the spirit nor letter of the laws.

    PBS just had a documentary on Chinese immigration. They said Chinese Exclusion law came about due to what is occurring again now, systemic replacement of citizen workers. They said one Massachusetts employer replaced all of his striking workers at once with Chinese workers.

    I see this as one of the many strands/strains of class warfare.


  5. I have already commented on your blog on this subject, because I was directly affected by these policies.

    My Chinese neighbors, a working couple, had their mother living with them. The grandmother was on SSI while babysitting her grandchildren. At the time, I had a workplace injury and had applied for disability, which was denied. Even though I am also a minority, my attorney, had already warned me that I was too white, too young, and too educated to be approved. He told me that had I been non-English speaking, he could get me approved right away.

    Eventually, I had to rent out my house because I could no longer afford to stay in it and the market was down so I couldn’t sell. A couple of years later when I finally sold, guess who had enough saved up to buy it, my Chinese neighbors.

    This lady had not worked a day in this country and my forced contributions to social security were given to her while I was pushed aside. Needless to say, I am a Trump supporter.


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