Politics & Policy

The Coming Welfare Wave

Some beneficiaries of the immigration bill will be able to receive government benefits quite soon.

The Gang of Eight’s immigration bill could make illegal immigrants eligible for state and local welfare benefits almost immediately after it is passed, according to Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), one of the proposal’s leading critics. Further, he contends, some particular categories of amnestied immigrants and their relatives would be eligible for federal benefits long before the 13-year waiting period usually cited by the bill’s advocates, such as Senator Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), who challenged Sessions’s argument in a press release on Tuesday. These are just a couple of reasons why Sessions and others are calling on the Gang of Eight to allow amendments to the legislation.

Under the proposed law, millions of illegal immigrants would become eligible to apply for provisional legal status within six months, or once the secretary of homeland security has submitted a plan to increase border enforcement. Immigrants who are granted such status “shall be considered lawfully present” in the United States, per the text of the bill, at which point they would also be eligible to receive a variety of state and local welfare benefits. This is far sooner than the 13-year timeframe that proponents of the bill often cite as the time before beneficiaries of the bill could receive government benefits.

According to a March 2012 survey by the Department of Health and Human Services, “lawfully present” immigrants can qualify for cash-assistance programs in 22 states, health-coverage programs in 15 states, and food-assistance programs in 7 states. Sessions and other critics of the Gang’s bill are concerned about the strain on state and local budgets that a dramatic increase in the number of lawfully present immigrants might mean.

“Eligibility for state and local benefits could be immediate in the dozens of states that offer cash, medical, and food assistance through state-only programs to ‘lawfully present’ aliens,” Sessions said in a statement Tuesday. He also explained that legally present immigrants would begin building eligibility for federal retirement benefits: “The long-term costs, particularly for Social Security and Medicare, would be enormous, with millions of lower-income illegal immigrants receiving more in net benefits then they contribute.”

A notable loophole in the Gang’s legislation explicitly prohibits DHS from considering the likelihood that an applicant for provisional legal status will become a “public charge” — defined as any individual who is “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.” Critics fear that if a significant number of immigrants meeting that definition are given legal status, state and local government could face an immediate financial burden, and one that could worsen over time.

Moreover, under the bill, millions of immigrants who are currently in the country illegally could also become eligible for federal benefits sooner than advertised. The law would also give “DREAM” deferred-action beneficiaries and agricultural workers a fast-track path to citizenship (five years), at which point they would be eligible for nearly all forms of federal assistance.

Agriculture workers in particular would be more likely to seek and qualify for such benefits, critics charge, due to their relatively low levels of income and education. DREAM beneficiaries are presumably slightly better off, since they are ostensibly required to have attended college for at least two years or served in the military for at least four years. However, the DHS secretary may waive the education or military requirement if she determines that an immigrant applicant has shown “compelling circumstances” for his or her failure to satisfy them. Further, the law does not contain an employment or income requirement for such applicants to be granted citizenship.

After the five years it would take those agriculture workers and DREAM beneficiaries to become citizens, their immediate family members would then be eligible to enter the country and apply for provisional legal status. Again, the “public charge” consideration would not apply to these relatives, and the DHS secretary would have broad discretion to ease the migration of family members in order to avoid “hardship” — a term that appears repeatedly throughout the legislation but is never defined. Critics of the bill worry that this could result in a “second wave” of immigrants who would be eligible for all federal benefits.

Senator Jeff Flake recently dismissed these concerns by arguing that illegal immigrants are already eligible for welfare benefits under current law. But that’s part of the problem, critics contend, and just another reason why immigration reform deserves needs a more thorough examination than it’s been given.

“These are only some of the many flaws in the legislation,” Sessions explained.  And, to him, that’s “why the rush to pass it before people know what’s in it is so dangerous.”

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

Andrew StilesAndrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online. He previously worked at the Washington Free Beacon, and was an intern at The Hill newspaper. Stiles is a 2009 ...


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