Welfare reform is usually an issue Republicans are more than happy to discuss. However, in the context of the debate over reforming the immigration system, the GOP has been relatively silent on matters of welfare.
Critics of the Gang of Eight legislation have warned of the potential financial burden associated with granting legal status to significant numbers of illegal immigrants who qualify as a “public charge,” defined by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as an individual who is likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance, or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”
The Senate immigration bill would amend existing law so that immigrants likely to become a public charge would no longer be considered “inadmissible,” or prohibited from obtaining legal status.
That’s not to say that this change would represent a significant departure from current policy under the Obama administration. A 2012 analysis by Republican staff on the Senate Budget Committee found that out of 10.37 million applications for immigrant and non-immigrant visas processed by the State Department in fiscal year 2011, just 7,069 were rejected on public-charge grounds — 0.068 percent. Furthermore, a majority of those rejections were ultimately overturned.
“Federal immigration law establishes [that] those seeking entrance into the United States cannot be welfare-reliant,” said Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, in response to the findings. “The initial assessment of State Department data suggests that the law is being ignored.”
Earlier this year, Sessions and three other GOP senators finally received a response to their repeated inquiries about the Obama administration’s apparent willingness to accept immigrants who may become primarily dependent on government assistance. DHS revealed that it had initiated only one case in fiscal year 2012 against an immigrant deemed to have become a public charge, although that case was ultimately withdrawn. Additionally, a considerable amount of data with respect to public-charge cases was not available — because the administration does not have a system in place to adequately track these statistics.
With respect to one particular program — the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows immigrants to temporarily enter the country for a 90-day period, but without an adequate tracking system to make sure they leave on time — DHS said that fewer than 10,000 applications were denied on public-charge grounds between 2005 and August 2012 — just 0.0084 percent of the total number of applications approved during that period.
Immigration-enforcement officers say the legal prohibition on public charges is almost never enforced — that they are essentially barred from enforcing it. This was one of many concerns outlined by USCIS union president Kenneth Palinkas in a statement urging lawmakers to oppose the Gang of Eight bill, in which he argued that USCIS has “been turned into an approval machine” and is discouraged from thoroughly investigating immigrant applications for admission or status adjustment.
Republicans who are skeptical of the push for comprehensive immigration reform have been critical of their own party’s apparent unwillingness to draw attention to the alleged abuses by using the full weight of their congressional oversight authority. Investigating the Obama administration’s failure to enforce a law designed to strengthen the welfare system might seem like a natural choice for the GOP, but some critics think the party establishment is reluctant to engage the issue for fear of jeopardizing the passage of immigration reform, which is supported by powerful interest groups, including a large swath of the Republican donor base.
Generally speaking, the fact that the Gang of Eight bill calls for a substantial increase in the number of low-skilled immigrants — those most likely to become dependent on welfare programs — has been largely absent from the immigration debate, and mostly ignored by media reports, in which the issue is almost exclusively framed as a disagreement over whether or not to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
Meanwhile, even liberal parties in countries such as Great Britain are rethinking their support for high levels of low-skilled immigration, and have been talking about trying to reduce welfare use among immigrants. But in the U.S., leaders in both parties have shown little interest.
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.