The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Immigrantsâ€TM Advocates Hope to Open Door to Federal Assistance

Part Two of Two

by Michelle Chen

In the struggle over the future of welfare, non-citizens have found themselves increasingly marginalized, while recently proposed changes threaten to shift scarcely offered resources between impoverished communities.

Part one of this series, "Debate Over Renewing Welfare Reform Reveals Cracks in the System," appeared Saturday, April 30.

May 2, 2005 – Nearly a decade ago, welfare reform launched a new calculus for public policy: if the government offered just enough assistance to help people get off their feet, plus aggressive measures to increase employment, the result would be more stable, self-sufficient families. Yet many households never received these envisioned benefits, and their situations worsened after the reforms. But left out of the equation altogether were hundreds of thousands of new immigrants whose benefits were stripped away in the system’s transformation process.

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As Congress deliberates over legislation to reauthorize the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, popularly known as the Clinton administration’s "welfare-to-work" plan, the National Immigration Law Center, the National Council of La Raza, and other immigrant advocacy organizations are pushing policymakers to restore some of the social safety nets that the original legislation pulled from under documented immigrants.

Contrary to the public perception behind the 1996 policy changes -- that non-citizens are more likely than others to take advantage of federal assistance - poor immigrant families have historically accessed welfare at a lower rate than their citizen counterparts.

The passage of the 1996 bill further entrenched this disparity by severing most documented immigrants from the federal benefits system for their first five years in the United States. The number of non-citizen families receiving federal cash assistance declined over 60 percent from 1994 to 1999, outpacing the decline among citizen households. Although state and federal actions since 1996 have rolled back some of the original welfare restrictions, advocacy groups say that welfare reform has nonetheless further mired immigrant communities in poverty.

Contrary to the public perception behind the 1996 policy changes, poor immigrant families have historically accessed welfare at a lower rate than their citizen counterparts.

Though Congress is unlikely to broaden immigrants’ access to the welfare system on a large scale this year, advocates are hoping at least to counter the latest attempt at tightening restrictions on immigrant benefits.

A major controversy in the reauthorization debate is the Senate’s latest effort to bar certain immigrants from the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), one of the few federal financial resources still widely available to non-citizens.

Billed by legislators as a clerical amendment that would help enforce the original 1996 statutes, a proposed change in the EITC eligibility rules would exclude immigrants without a "work-authorized" Social Security Number (SSN). In effect, immigrants who are supposedly not legally able to work would be barred from accessing the EITC. A 2001 report by the Inspector General for Tax Administration of the Treasury Department warned that the 334,000 tax credits granted annually to these non-standard SSNs were all "potentially erroneous."

However, critics of the provision point out that this bureaucratic technicality is itself prone to error. Often, they argue, immigrants may not be officially work-authorized upon entering the US, but later begin working and simply do not to change their original SSNs to reflect their new status. The Department of Homeland Security charges $175 to process a work authorization, which advocates say is a deterrent for many. Children and disabled people in immigrant households could also lack these SSNs.

“We don’t think that Congress should be taking from one low-income community to give to another low-income community.” --Jennifer Ng’andu, policy analyst

Because under current law, one ineligible primary tax-filer renders the entire household ineligible for the EITC, the rule could have a considerable ripple effect. The Finance Committee has indicated plans to amend the provision to be less restrictive, and advocates are vigilantly pressuring legislators to formally address their concerns.

"This proposal is going to result in lawful immigrants, who are working hard and paying taxes, not having access to the same kind of deductions and credits as other taxpayers [have]," said Jonathan Blazer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). He noted that in stark contrast to the general emphasis on cutting taxes, "the one group Congress finds it suitable to hit with a tax increase is the… lowest-income immigrants."

The rule change is especially controversial because cutting off tax credit eligibility would contribute to an expansion of federal childcare subsidies. As proposed by the Senate, the $6 billion funding increase would in part be contingent on savings from the new tax credit rule and other strategic reconfigurations in the budget - a move that has drawn sharp criticism from groups representing both immigrants and low-income families. (See Part One of this series.)

"[W]e don’t think that Congress should be taking from one low-income community to give to another low-income community," said Jennifer Ng’andu, a policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza. "Just attacking immigrants is unfair." Since new immigrants are generally cut off from federal assistance, she said, "The EITC may be the only resource available to help sustain these households."

Organizations representing immigrants hope to push forward a two-year extension of the deadline to help immigrants now approaching the time limit maintain their benefits.

Suggesting that the rule’s budgetary "benefits" had led lawmakers to ignore where the costs would truly fall, Ng’andu added cynically, "We know that when you’re getting that type of money out of the system, low-income people are going to be hurt."

Since welfare reform was implemented, the economic strains plaguing low-income immigrant households have deepened. The Urban Institute, a liberal public policy think tank, reported that children of non-citizens are over-represented among low-income children. Furthermore, the poverty rate among children of immigrants nearly doubled from 1970 to 2002.

Yet after welfare reform, the number of documented immigrants accessing crucial federal benefits fell sharply. From 1996 to 2000, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a federal policy research group, the number of immigrants using food stamps dropped by more than 60 percent. By 2001, the count of immigrant-headed households receiving welfare benefits had declined by about the same proportion. The CBPP also reported that in states that more severely restrict immigrant access to public assistance, food insecurity among immigrant families has increased.

The primary focus of legislative action around immigrant welfare issues has been the restrictive timeframes imposed on access to federal help. The proposed Women Immigrants’ Safe Harbor Act, building on the protections for battered immigrant women under the Violence Against Women Act, would repeal the five-year waiting period for victims of domestic violence and other crimes, enabling the victims to obtain federal benefits immediately.

Proponents of the bill believe it would help immigrant women in violent situations escape their abusers and live independently. Research has indicated that domestic violence is more common among immigrants than among citizens, and that many immigrant victims, who typically depend on their abusers for economic support, remain trapped in violent relationships because they lack access to social services.

The NILC is calling on legislators to amend the original welfare legislation by extending Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to refugees, asylum-seekers and other immigrants granted special humanitarian status by the government. SSI provides modest income assistance to millions of poor seniors and people with disabilities. While these immigrants are not subject to the five-year bar, their benefits are pegged to a seven-year timeframe established in the original 1996 welfare bill. That deadline was based on the presumption that refugees would become naturalized citizens after this period.

Organizations representing immigrants hope to push forward a two-year extension of the deadline to help immigrants now approaching the time limit maintain their benefits.

There is currently a ten-year backlog of asylum-seekers awaiting visas, and the entire process for obtaining permanent status can take as long as fourteen years, according to the NILC’s projections.

Many refugees may also see their benefits run out before they are able to apply for citizenship, faced with indefinite delays due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and the extensive post-September-11th immigration screening process. The Social Security Administration reported that at the end of 2003, roughly 2,400 humanitarian immigrants had lost their benefits because of the time restriction.

Advocates are trying to persuade lawmakers that they should not continue, in Blazer’s words, "a policy that carries certain assumptions that are totally unrealistic."

Another major proposal to restore immigrant benefits is the Immigrant Children’s Health Improvement Act, which would authorize federal funds for the medical care of non-citizen children and pregnant women, overriding the five-year bar.

States currently must rely on their own funds to provide healthcare to immigrants ineligible for federal programs, and fewer than half have opted to do so. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a private research organization focused on health care, in 2003, about half of recent immigrants were uninsured, compared to 15 percent of native-born citizens. National health survey data from 2002 shows that compared to children of native-born parents, children of immigrants were more than twice as likely to report poor health, and more than three times as likely to lack a consistent source of health care.

The rationale for providing medical care to immigrant children, argue the NILC and likeminded organizations, is both moral and economic: spending more on preventative care could greatly reduce overall public health costs by staving off more severe medical problems, like childbirth complications.

Activist groups are vaguely hopeful that they will achieve some legislative successes this year, but in past years, Congress has failed to enact major legislation on these issues. The Immigrant Children’s Health Improvement Act, the Women Immigrants’ Safe Harbor Act and proposals for extending refugee benefits have all been introduced previously in Congress but never passed.

None of the legislative proposals currently under consideration would change the overarching barriers to welfare that immigrants now face. Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a centrist political think tank, commented that Senators are generally uninterested in expanding immigrant welfare assistance.

Even if the Senate reauthorization bill does enhance federal aid to non-citizens, Haskins told The NewStandard, "I don’t think the House would agree to any very substantial changes in the immigrant provisions at all." Some senior representatives, he added, are "still upset" that Congress has restored food stamp eligibility for certain categories of documented immigrants since 1996.

Haskins agrees with conservatives that immigrants should not be entitled to cash benefits, and that they already receive adequate assistance through services "that can help them advance their skills," like job training and student loans.

But other analysts point out that programs intended for the economic advancement of immigrants often lead to another set of barriers. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that public assistance programs often lack resources to accommodate people with limited English proficiency, and that even those immigrants who are receiving federal benefits earn less than their citizen counterparts and are more likely to be jobless.

Ng’andu believes that for the immigrant population as a whole, the sweeping overhaul of the benefits system has done more harm than good. The net effect of welfare reform, she said, is that "when times are hard for immigrant families, it’s a lot harder to get out of poverty."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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