The newly finalized rule about immigrant welfare use is 837 pages long, but it boils down to two things: Foreigners who can’t pay their bills shouldn’t be allowed to move here, and “welfare” doesn’t just mean cash benefits.
As to the first: The first comprehensive immigration law at the federal level was the 1882 Immigration Act, which, among other things, excluded anyone who was “unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” That principle — the “public-charge doctrine,” as it’s called — has been included in all subsequent immigration legislation, including the 1996 immigration and welfare-reform laws.
But the exclusion of “public charges” didn’t start in the 19th century, but well before that, when immigration law was handled by the states. In fact, preventing the immigration of people who couldn’t support themselves was the subject of the very first immigration law ever passed in the colonies, in Massachusetts Bay in 1645. It’s not too much to say that the public-charge doctrine is the founding principle of American immigration policy. So those arguing for the admission of foreigners (other than refugees) who can’t earn enough to feed their own children without taxpayer subsidies are arguing for a radical break with 400 years of practice.
The second point involves a more recent issue. In 1996 Congress passed welfare-reform and immigration laws that sought to put more teeth in the existing public-charge rules. These measures had no lasting impact on the share of immigrants using welfare; within five years, the rate of immigration welfare use was right back where it had been before the changes. Today, some 63 percent of households headed by non-citizens use at least one welfare program, including an astonishing 80 percent of non-citizen households with children.
Early on, George Borjas identified two reasons for this: Some states used their own funds to cover newly ineligible immigrants, and many immigrants seemed to have naturalized to maintain access to benefits unavailable to non-citizens.
But a third reason may have been the Clinton administration’s dishonest definition of welfare. In order to minimize the impact of the Republican Congress’s 1996 changes, the Clinton administration issued guidance that barred consideration of anything other than cash benefits for purposes of determining self-sufficiency. In other words, an immigrant using food stamps, Medicaid, free school lunch, and public housing — but not cash benefits such as TANF or SSI — was to be considered self-supporting, and his welfare use would not affect his future green-card and visa applications.
Ending this Orwellian practice was long overdue. Officials will now also consider SNAP (food stamps), most Medicaid, Medicare Part D subsidies, Section 8 housing, and other programs. But, as Jason Richwine pointed out, there are still means-tested, taxpayer-funded welfare programs that are not covered by the new rule, such as free school lunch (and breakfast), WIC, the refundable portion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the Additional Child Tax Credit.
But even if every possible poverty program were included, and the rule were enforced in the most stringent manner possible, you’re still going to end up with relatively high levels of immigrant welfare use so long as the federal immigration program selects people based mainly on family connections or random chance. This doesn’t mean a filter like the public-charge doctrine is useless, but its effectiveness is likely to be limited. In fact, as my colleague Steven Camarota wrote in these pages, recent cohorts of new immigrants have actually been getting more educated, but they haven’t been doing any better in terms of poverty, income, and welfare use.
Immigrants shouldn’t just use welfare less than the native-born — ideally, they shouldn’t use it at all. Past attempts at building a wall around the welfare state have enjoyed only modest success at best, and I don’t expect this latest effort to be an exception. The only way to truly fix this is much lower overall numbers and much higher standards.