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. 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 familys 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 Childrens 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.