Immigration and the Public Charge Problem

Back in 1996, Congress limited lawful permanent residents from accessing a number of federal benefits. The (entirely defensible) idea was that while immigrants who choose to become naturalized citizens are taking on the obligations that come with membership in the U.S. political community, it is appropriate to place those who choose not to do so in a separate category. Note that this logic applies only to authorized immigrants, as the case against allowing unauthorized immigrants to access federal benefits is stronger still. As Douglas Massey and Jorge G. Castañeda observed last year, however, this measure had an unintended consequence:

Legislation enacted in 1996 limited access to federal benefits, curtailed civil rights and increased the risk of deportation. The well-being of foreign nationals was further undermined by the USA Patriot Act in 2001 and was threatened in 2006 by the Sensenbrenner bill, which aimed to deter illegal immigration through strict enforcement of draconian new restrictions; it failed to become law, but a similar strategy underlies Arizona’s 2010 anti-illegal-immigration law.

In response, many Mexican permanent residents made an unexpected choice: Rather than leave the United States because they felt unwelcome, they became citizens — a practice known as “defensive naturalization.” In the decade before 1996, an average of 29,000 Mexicans were naturalized each year; since 1996, the average has been 125,000 per year, yielding two million new citizens who could then bring in close relatives. At present, nearly two-thirds of legal permanent residents from Mexico enter as relatives of United States citizens. [Emphasis added]

Leaving aside the polemical and subjective pronouncements of Massey and Castañeda (it’s not clear that U.S. restrictions were “draconian” in comparative context), there is an interesting puzzle implicit in their observations. As Byron York writes, U.S. law explicitly forbids the admission of immigrants who are likely to depend on public assistance. Yet the Obama administration, and the Bush administration before it, has encouraged authorized immigrants to access SNAP and other means-tested transfer programs. A number of Republican senators have recently tried to draw attention to this contradiction: 

And now, the Obama administration forbids American consular officers from even considering whether a prospective immigrant might end up on dozens of public assistance programs when evaluating that immigrant’s admissibility to the U.S. The policy came as a surprise to four top Republican senators when they learned about it last year.

“It has long been a sound principle of immigration law that those who seek citizenship in this country ought to be financially self-sufficient,” Sens. Jeff Sessions, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley and Pat Roberts wrote in an August 2012 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We were thus shocked to discover that both the State Department and DHS exclude reliance on almost all governmental welfare programs when evaluating whether an alien is likely to become a public charge.”

Specifically, the senators were stunned to discover that while government policy allows an American official to consider whether a prospective immigrant might end up on Supplemental Security Income, or on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the official cannot weigh whether the immigrant would need more than 70 other means-tested programs: Medicaid, food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, childcare benefits, educational assistance and more than a dozen nutritional programs.

It is important to keep in mind that at least some lawful immigrants might need to temporarily access federal benefits. The more pressing concern is with immigrants who become permanently dependent on means-tested transfers — not because these immigrants aren’t morally praiseworthy individuals (which they may well be), but because the U.S. has an entrenched poverty problem and authorizing immigrants who are likely to become public charges rather than net contributors is likely to exacerbate this problem and make it more difficult to finance the transfers that can mitigate its downsides. 

One challenge is that determining which immigrants are and are not likely to become public charges may well prove labor-intensive, particularly if done on a careful, case-by-case basis. But the authorities could simply rely on the premise that skilled immigrants are far less likely to become public charges than less-skilled immigrants, as the labor market position of less-skilled workers has deteriorated in recent decades. Some number of less-skilled immigrants might be admitted if they can establish that they are not likely to become public charges in some affirmative way, e.g., by paying a sizable bond or by agreeing to have the wages of sponsoring relatives garnished if they do become public charges. This idea is related, though not identical to, Jacob Vigdor’s “assimilation bond” concept, which I hope to revisit. If the sponsorship of relatives were taken more seriously, i.e., if sponsoring relatives were required to bear the consequences of economi reversals experienced by their family members, the skew of U.S. immigration policy towards family unification would be far easier to defend. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute Policy Fellow. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and National Affairs, a member of the ...

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