May 8, 2009
Some people mistakenly think that immigrants are not eligible for welfare. Several years ago, Congress did attempt to render immigrants ineligible for most forms of welfare. However, subsequent backpedaling by Congress and the executive branch has undone most of those reforms. Furthermore, many immigrant families get welfare through the eligibility of their U.S. citizen children. (It is also important to realize that even when immigrants are ineligible for federal welfare programs, the burden of their support is simply shifted over to the state and local welfare agencies.)
Refugees, asylees, and all amnestied illegal aliens are exempt from the public charge requirement.3 Congress has decided that the American people will serve as the sponsors for these immigrants and pick up the tab for their support.
All other immigrants must pass a public charge test and have a U.S. sponsor or sponsors willing to pledge their income to support them. Before a potential immigrant receives an immigration visa, American consular officers are supposed to evaluate whether he or she is likely to become a public charge, and, if so, to deny the visa. The consular officer is supposed to take into account a variety of factors: the amount of support the sponsor can give, the resources and skills of the applicant, and any special conditions (such as age or infirmity) that might affect the applicant’s need for support. The Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 set the new legal standard for the evaluation: the sponsor of the applicant must have an annual income of at least 125 percent of the federally designated poverty level. There are several problems with this standard:
- The sponsorship income level, only 25 percent higher than the poverty level, is so low that it does not prevent immigrants from going on welfare; in fact, it almost guarantees it. Say a sponsor begins with an income of 200 percent of poverty level and is, therefore, not considered “legally poor.” But after splitting that income with the immigrant, each will be at 100 percent of the poverty level. Where before we had one non-poor person, now we have two poor people. Since eligibility for some welfare programs kicks in before one’s income drops to 125 percent of poverty level, immigrants can easily wind up on welfare.
- While immigrants who receive welfare can be deported for violating the conditions under which they were admitted, this provision is rarely enforced; in fact, only twelve people have been deported under this provision since 1980.4 Administrative rulings have held that an immigrant cannot be held responsible for receiving welfare unless the welfare agencies have sent the immigrant a bill for their services, demanded payment, and been refused payment.5 Since welfare agencies do not do this, it is virtually impossible for an immigrant to be charged with violating the public charge provisions that can lead to deportation.
- Furthermore, numerous forms of welfare are not considered under the public charge test, including food stamps, pre-natal care, nutrition programs, housing assistance, energy assistance, job training programs, child care services, free or reduced school lunch, public shelters, health clinics, Medicaid, and any cash welfare programs that are not the family’s sole source of income.6 This insulates immigrants from being considered public charges unless they are completely dependent on welfare.