Published Wednesday, June 30, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

State's immigrants leading in welfare use, survey says


Mercury News Staff Writer

New citizens in California are nearly three times more likely to receive welfare than native-born residents, a dramatic difference that is not seen in other states with burgeoning immigrant populations, according to a new report by the U.S. General Accounting Office.

In addition to general welfare, the GAO -- the investigative arm of Congress -- has documented similar differences in the use of Medicaid, the nation's health insurance program for the needy.

In California, for instance, the number of citizens naturalized in fiscal years 1996 and 1997 receiving Medi-Cal (California's Medicaid program) was 23.7 percent, compared with 8.2 percent for native-born citizens. In Illinois, one of five states studied by the GAO because they have large numbers of immigrants, the difference was insignificant -- 7.5 percent for new citizens vs. 6 percent for the native-born.

The report drew no conclusions about the stark differences among states. But researchers, immigrant-rights advocates and immigration critics interviewed Tuesday attributed the differences to several factors, including California's aggressive push to have low-income immigrants become citizens, as well as the vast array of ethnic and immigrant-advocacy groups that encourage welfare use.

``You have community-based organizations that get on ethnic TV stations or into the ethnic press and work hard to disseminate information on welfare,'' said Norm Matloff, a University of California-Davis professor whose testimony in 1994 and 1996 helped persuade Congress to cut legal immigrants off welfare. ``Other states don't have critical masses of certain nationalities.''

`Model minority' disputed

In 1993, Matloff finished a groundbreaking study that showed that despite a ``model minority'' stereotypical image of being self-sufficient, 55 percent of elderly Chinese immigrants in California received public assistance, mostly Supplemental Security Income. Among elderly Vietnamese immigrants, the figure was 74 percent, compared with 21 percent of Mexican immigrants and 9 percent of the native-born elderly.

Nationwide figures for Asian immigrant groups were significantly lower, according to Matloff.

The GAO did not break down SSI use by state, but the report showed that 8.3 percent of new citizens received SSI, compared with 2.4 percent of U.S.-born citizens.

In California, the GAO said, 5.8 percent of new citizens were receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the nation's leading welfare program, compared with 2 percent of native-born citizens. In Texas, the figures were 1.5 percent for new citizens vs. 1.2 percent for the native-born -- a difference that the GAO said was statistically insignificant.

Florida and New York had higher overall public-assistance use among new citizens, but not nearly as high as California. Only Florida matched California's disparity in Medicaid use.

Rush to citizenship

The 1990s have witnessed a great rush to apply for citizenship. It began during the campaign for Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative aimed at cutting off benefits to illegal immigrants. It surged again in 1995 after congressional Republicans and some Democrats began talking about cutting off welfare benefits to legal immigrants -- a threat that became reality when President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill in August 1996.

California counties then spent millions of dollars encouraging non-citizen immigrants to naturalize to make sure they didn't end up on county-funded general assistance rolls. Santa Clara County alone spent more than $1 million getting more than 7,000 immigrants to sign up to become citizens.

State officials said Tuesday they have never tracked the use of public assistance by new citizens. ``So we don't know if this is a trend since immigrants receiving SSI for years were being threatened with a cutoff (in 1996 and 1997),'' said Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the California Health and Human Services Agency.

Some immigrant-rights advocates attacked the GAO report as politically motivated -- and unfair.

``The period that the report looks at is precisely the height of the crisis, when people were becoming citizens because it was the only way for them to survive,'' said Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization.

Muñoz questioned the motives of Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Oxnard, who requested the GAO report.

``He's just trying to paint another negative picture of immigrants,'' she said.

``It is no longer in his party's political interest to be making this particular case,'' she added, alluding to the new ``immigrant-friendly'' posture of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential front-runner.

Neither Gallegly nor his press secretary was available for comment Tuesday.

Muñoz and other immigrant advocates pointed to other studies that show -- with the exception of political refugees -- welfare usage among immigrants and native-born Americans is about the same.

A study by the Urban Institute in March, for instance, showed a significantly greater drop in welfare use by non-citizens and refugee households, compared with native-born Americans, from 1994 to 1997.

Effects of welfare reform

In fact, said institute researcher Michael Fix, welfare reform seems to be discouraging immigrants from using public benefits despite the fact that Congress has gradually restored most benefits to legal immigrants.

Fix on Tuesday questioned the methods used by the GAO, saying it compiled data from various sources.

``The GAO is mixing apples and oranges,'' Fix said.

But others say the statistical variations that could occur don't explain why California's statistics are different from those of states such as Texas and Illinois.

``What the GAO report shows is that we have an immigration policy that brings in a lot of people who are not prepared to be economically self-sufficient,'' said Ira Mehlman, Los-Angeles-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. ``We're importing poverty to the United States.''

Contact Ken McLaughlin at or (408) 920-5552.