The walk to the H street welfare office from Washington, D.C.'s Union Station takes a good 20 minutes, longer if you've got small children in tow. You see manicured gardens give way to empty lots, bottles in brown paper bags, and a grocery store that's fenced-in to prevent cart theft. When you get to the office and ask a few questions about eligibility -- I was inquiring on behalf of a made-up friend, undocumented, with two children born in the United States -- it seems that you will often get the wrong answers. But that hardly seems to matter: If you are an immigrant -- a legal permanent resident, a refugee, or an "illegal alien" -- you probably wouldn't be in the office in the first place because you would be too afraid to apply for benefits at all.
"Welfare reform" is an ugly phrase for many U.S. immigrants. The 1996 welfare-reform act included a five-year ban on benefits for immigrants arriving in the United States after August 22, 1996. But many of their children -- the vast majority of whom are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for benefits -- do not receive those benefits, because their parents are afraid to go to the welfare office for fear of facing humiliating treatment, jeopardizing their immigration status, or being forced to pay back benefits. Instead, many immigrants -- who compose 20 percent of the low-wage workforce -- toil impossible hours in low-paying jobs, without the supports to which their children are entitled.
But the political tide may be turning in immigrants' favor, just in time for this year's welfare-reauthorization debate. President George W. Bush is in something of a political bind, given his courting of the large immigrant vote, especially in California and Texas. The normally nativist Republican right is looking for ways to signal compassion for immigrants. In May, President Bush, with great fanfare, restored food-stamp benefits to immigrants who have legally lived in the United States for five years, when he signed the farm bill. But the Republican welfare bill, which passed the House May 16, does nothing to restore benefits to immigrants.
Numerous bills circulating in Congress would restore benefits such as Medicaid to immigrants or English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training as a work support -- an important key to helping immigrant families leave poverty. As the Senate takes up the welfare bill in late June, even modest restorations could open the door to expansions in the future, an important first step in moving immigrant families from "working poverty to working dignity," as Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center says.
According to michael fix, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute and director of its Immigration Studies Program, the language of the 1996 welfare debate was dominated by three damaging notions: the "welfare magnet," "welfare dependency," and the "immigrant version of the welfare queen." The welfare-magnet theory posits that generous welfare benefits draw immigrants in droves to take advantage of a cushy free ride. These immigrants will become reliant on an indulgent system (welfare dependency), and even import relatives to further bilk U.S. taxpayers (the immigrant version of the welfare queen). At the 1996 congressional hearings on welfare reform, one alleged abuse involved high-income Chinese families who, though they could afford to support their elderly parents, enrolled them in the Supplemental Security Income program anyway.
The claim that immigrants abused welfare, along with Democratic pressure to cut costs (for reasons of deficit reduction) and the Republican push to reduce federal spending (for the usual ideological reasons), made continuing benefits to immigrants politically unattractive. Although immigrants are 11 percent of the U.S. population, cutting benefits to them provided nearly 40 percent of the welfare-reform savings. Immigrants became politically expendable and convenient scapegoats -- and their benefits were axed with little public outcry.
Recent studies have refuted both the welfare magnet and dependency theories. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, the 30 least generous states saw strong growth in immigrant populations between 1995 and 2000. The numbers of immigrant families with children rose by 31 percent in these states -- four times the rate of the 20 other states. And it's hardly the case that welfare leads to immigrant dependency: Immigrant men 16 years and older have a higher labor market participation rate -- 79 percent to 74 percent -- than native men. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences discovered that the United States nets a $50 billion surplus from taxes paid by immigrants to all levels of the government.
Nevertheless, Brookings found that the 1996 reforms had drastic impacts on immigrant usage of benefits that could not be explained by conversion to citizenship or increases in income alone. The welfare-reform law had what immigrant advocates have called a "chilling effect," because so many families who were eligible for benefits stopped coming in for them. Many of those who dropped off the rolls were either refugees (who are eligible for benefits during their first seven years in the United States) or U.S. citizen children of immigrants (who make up 80 percent of all children of immigrants). According to Margie McHugh of the New York Immigration Coalition, this situation was brought about in several distinct ways: a lack of language services and outreach by welfare offices, poor training of welfare-office employees, intimidation of mixed-status (immigrant and U.S. citizen) families, and legislation that held an immigrant's sponsor responsible for his or her benefit usage.
At the H Street office, for instance, the staff assured me that my undocumented friend could "apply for Medicare for her children." This was of course wrong -- they could apply for Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Worse, the staff failed to mention the host of other benefits -- cash assistance, food stamps, and other health and social services -- the children could also legally receive. At the Anacostia Road office, where a sign reads "Start facing your fears and stop running from yourself," no translators were on hand. My friend would have to go to H Street, a half-hour away, to the only center equipped to deal with noncitizens.
The drop in welfare participation seems to be linked to increased hardship. According to an Urban Institute study, children of immigrants fare worse than native children in three main indicators of poverty: food, housing, and health care. Approximately one-fourth of all children in immigrant families live in poverty, compared with 16 percent of children of natives. A staggering 52 percent of children of immigrants live in families whose incomes rank below 200 percent of the poverty line; 37 percent of the children of natives do. And while food insecurity data depends largely on a state's generosity, 37 percent of immigrant children's families express worry about food or experience difficulty feeding themselves compared with 27 percent of native families. Housing difficulties also vary according to state, but children of foreign-born parents are more than twice as likely as children of natives to live in households that spend at least half their incomes on housing costs. Children of immigrants are also four times as likely to live in crowded housing. Finally, 22 percent of children of immigrants are uninsured, more than twice the percentage of children of natives. This is a problem compounded by poor access to health care: Children of immigrants are more than three times as likely not to have a regular health-care source, and more than twice as likely to be in fair or poor health.
These data clearly indicate that the "welfare reform wasn't designed with mixed-status families in mind," says Fix. In addition, the Bush administration's emphasis on family formation and marriage initiatives will fail to serve immigrant families. More immigrant households than native families already are two-parent households with children -- 35 percent to 23 percent, according to data from the 1998 Current Population Survey.
A higher percentage of children in native families have two employed parents than do children of immigrants -- 57 percent compared with 45 percent -- despite the fact that they are less likely to live in two-parent families. As a result, 44 percent of two-parent immigrant families with children are poor, compared with 22 percent of native families. "Two-parent immigrant families won't respond like natives," says Fix. "If you put a lot of your eliminate-poverty eggs in the marriage basket, it won't solve the problem."
What kind of antipoverty policy would address immigrant-family needs? First, it would provide strong income supports. Second, it would provide access to vital benefits such as health insurance and food stamps. And third, it would provide ESL instruction. Limited-English proficiency (LEP) is strongly tied to poverty -- LEP immigrant families are more than twice as likely to be poor as English-proficient immigrant households. Three-quarters of all immigrant adults in Los Angeles and two-thirds in New York can be considered LEP individuals, according to the Urban Institute.
One of the best bills is a proposal by Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, which would restore cash benefits to eligible needy immigrants, and give states the option of restoring Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to pregnant women and children. Rockefeller's bill also specifies that ESL classes can count toward work requirements. It's unlikely that anything as sweeping as Rockefeller's bill will make it into the final law.
Nonetheless, there's a decent chance that the current rhetoric on "state options" will lead the Senate to offer governors the choice of restoring welfare benefits to immigrants, and perhaps even offer the funding. "The Congress may in the end choose to do the statesman-like thing and grant the states the option to restore TANF to immigrants," says Fix. Senator John Breaux and five other members of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over TANF reauthorization, have proposed a state option to restore cash benefits to all immigrants regardless of entry date. Their proposal increases the time during which welfare recipients may receive education and training to two years from one year.
Senators Thomas Carper and Evan Bayh's Work and Family Act, with the backing of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, also offers the state option to grant TANF benefits for legal immigrants, but goes on to give states the option to grant Medicaid to immigrant children and pregnant women, and provides additional funding. As separate legislation, this idea has strong bipartisan support and was introduced by 12 senators -- eight Democrats, three Republicans, and one Independent.
Debate over the restoration of immigrant benefits is sure to become one of the hot-button issues in the final stages of this year's reauthorization process. As Democrats and Republicans compete for Latino and Asian-American votes, they should keep in mind two questions, says Fix: "What conditions are we going to tolerate among the full employment, low-wage workforce? Are we going to tolerate the creation of a multi-ethnic poverty class?"