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Paying Their Way

by Reihan Salam

Sponsors of immigrants should fund their welfare benefits

In the wake of House majority leader Eric Cantor’s political defenestration at the hands of GOP primary voters, we’ve been told comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Before it rises from the dead yet again, as it has so often in the recent past, conservatives have an opportunity to reframe the immigration debate. For a good example of how the Right might do so, we should look to the immigration debate of the 1990s.

One of the chief concerns of the critics of the immigration-policy status quo, then as now, was that large numbers of immigrants were eligible for a range of anti-poverty programs — cash welfare, food stamps, disability, the earned-income tax credit, and Medicaid, among others.

So, with this in mind, Republicans in Congress introduced measures to restrict immigrants’ eligibility for such programs, on the entirely reasonable grounds that when immigrants voluntarily choose to settle in the United States, they can be expected to make their way without public assistance or return to their native countries.

These measures were among the most controversial aspects of the 1996 welfare-reform law signed by President Bill Clinton. In spite of the apocalyptic rhetoric of those who opposed the law, it did not go as far as it could have in restricting immigrants’ eligibility for such benefits. Moreover, the restrictions that were passed have softened over time. Now, for instance, lawful residents who have been living in the country for five years or more are eligible for most means-tested welfare programs, whether or not they are citizens.

This matters because U.S. immigration policy, with its emphasis on family reunification and its lack of emphasis on skills, has greatly expanded the ranks of the poor, whereas Australia’s more selective immigration policy, for example, has tended to reduce them.

As of 2011, 19.9 percent of U.S. immigrants lived in poverty, compared with 13.5 percent of natives. Over a quarter of those living in poverty in the United States are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Given that situation, if benefits are on offer, it is foolish to expect that immigrants won’t seek them out.

Why don’t immigrants who find themselves on the lowest rungs of the U.S. economic ladder return to their native countries? Low-skilled immigrants do face pressure from technology and competition from other immigrant workers, but nevertheless command far higher wages in the United States than they would in the developing world. To be sure, the cost of living in the U.S. is also much higher. Yet once lawful immigrants are eligible for means-tested benefits, they are guaranteed living standards substantially higher than what would be available to them back home, even if they find themselves unemployed or underemployed.

While the share of immigrant households receiving cash assistance is similar to that of native households, immigrants are far more likely to use food stamps, Medicaid, and the earned-income tax credit.

If the idea behind the 1996 welfare reform was to encourage immigrants to be self-sustaining and to deter immigrants who weren’t likely to survive here without public assistance, it’s safe to say it’s been a failure. (Of course, this is not because immigrants are avoiding work in large numbers. Rather, it is because less-skilled immigrants tend to earn so little.)

But there was one provision of the 1996 welfare reform that — theoretically — had the potential to reduce immigrant dependence on public assistance. Lawful permanent residents sponsored by a family member were required not just to report their own income, but to report the income of their sponsors as well. It was the combined income of immigrants and their sponsors that would determine the immigrants’ eligibility for means-tested programs, a concept known as “sponsor deeming.” Most important, sponsors were obligated to repay the government for benefits paid to immigrants they sponsored, and government agencies were obligated to seek repayment, a concept known as “sponsor recovery.”

If I, as a sponsor, have to pay the government if you stumble, I might as well make an effort to prevent you from stumbling in the first place. Granted, many sponsors will feel a sense of responsibility for their sponsored relatives with or without a nudge from the government. But many others will not, and do not.

If this is so sensible, why hasn’t sponsor recovery succeeded in reducing immigrant dependence on public assistance? The answer is that it’s hardly ever been tried.

In 2009, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a report on the sponsor-recovery policies required by the 1996 welfare-reform law. While many benefit agencies at the state and local levels have tried to develop policies to implement sponsor deeming, the report said, they’ve found it extremely difficult to do so. And actual sponsor recovery — that is, real-world efforts to get sponsors to pay back the federal government for the benefits given to their sponsored immigrants — has rarely happened. Despite the fact that the 1996 welfare-reform law was very clear that benefit agencies had to seek repayment, federal regulations and guidance have made doing so optional in practice. Since seeking repayment is in effect optional, benefit agencies generally choose not to do it, especially because the incomes of sponsors tend to be quite low.

New York City was one of very few jurisdictions to seek sponsor repayment. Robert Doar, who served as head of the city’s Human Resources Administration under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sought repayment from the sponsors of single, childless, able-bodied adult immigrants who had received cash welfare. That is, he went after only an extremely narrow set of cases. Yet Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, campaigned on reversing Doar’s policy, and he has been true to his word: The city’s sponsor-recovery efforts have been brought to an abrupt halt, and the funds that had been recovered are actually being returned to sponsors.

But, regardless of de Blasio’s decision, sponsor recovery represents a new, sensible way forward for immigration policy. In the immediate aftermath of Cantor’s loss, pro- and anti-immigration groups did their best to spin the results in their favor. FWD.us, a new immigration-advocacy group founded and funded by Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs, released a poll of Cantor’s district that found that only 19 percent of Republican-primary voters opposed immigration reform. The poll was somewhat dubious, as immigration reform was defined as an ideal and largely impractical bargain. It did, however, serve as a reminder that Republicans do want to rethink our immigration policy. Meanwhile, opponents of comprehensive immigration reform as passed by the Senate’s Gang of Eight have argued that Cantor’s defeat reflects a popular rejection of a crucial element of the typical comprehensive-reform package — legal status for illegal immigrants.

But instead of focusing exclusively on the amnesty debate, the Right would do well to focus on seeing to it that immigrants trying to settle in the United States understand that they have an obligation to make their own way. A good first step would be to actually enforce the sponsor-recovery provisions of the 1996 welfare-reform law by forcing local benefit agencies to get with the program.

If it is indeed true that many sponsors can’t afford to meet the needs of their sponsored relatives, we need to tighten the rules governing who can and cannot sponsor immigrants. Simply put, if you don’t earn enough and you don’t have assets to ensure that your relatives will never need to access public benefits, you shouldn’t be allowed to sponsor them.

This may also cause us to question what sort of immigrants the United States should prioritize in the first place: those who require financial sponsors, or those whom we might expect to be net contributors to our troubled welfare state.

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