Welfare reform expands citizenry Naturalization rise linked to benefits

by Audrey Hudson
The Washington Times, June 29, 1999, p. A1

The number of immigrants who became U.S. citizens more than doubled in the year after welfare reform eliminated benefits for noncitizens, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office.

The study confirms that an "all-time high" number of new citizens has been naturalized since welfare reform was enacted three years ago.

"They're becoming naturalized simply because they want to keep their benefits," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "We're importing poverty to the United States."

Immigrants who became U.S. citizens in 1997 were more likely to apply and receive welfare benefits than American-born citizens, and citizenship paid off for the new Americans.

The GAO says new immigrants collected $735 million in welfare benefits that year.

According to the new study, those who became citizens in 1997 received part of that money - $328 million - through Supplemental Security Income, or 40 percent of the total benefits paid to all those who have immigrated to this country since 1970.

The 26-page report, released last week, focused solely on 1997 and did not compare the amount of benefits received by immigrants in any previous years.

The study was requested by Rep. Elton Gallegly, California Republican, who is concerned that more immigrants are seeking citizenship to stay on the welfare rolls and bypass the 1996 welfare-reform law that cut off public assistance benefits to noncitizens.

Before welfare reform passed, about 400,000 immigrants became citizens annually. The next year, the number jumped to 1 million, the report states.

The study focused on four major benefits: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), both federal programs, and state Medicaid and food-stamp programs. The five states included in the study were California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas.

Of the 927,338 immigrants the GAO studied, it found that 8.3 percent received SSI benefits, compared with 2.4 percent for native citizens.

In California, 23.7 percent of new immigrants received Medicaid, while only 8.2 percent of the native population claimed the benefits.

"The reason is because immigrants are poor and we don't have an immigration policy that selects people on their ability to succeed in the U.S.," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the study conducted by the Center for Immigration.

"When we're admitting a million immigrants a year who are three times more likely to be school dropouts than natives, it's not surprising they are more likely to collect welfare benefits," Mr. Krikorian said.

He cautioned against demonizing the new immigrants for accepting welfare money, saying they have little choice.

"Too many people on both sides of the debate are treating them as symbols or objects, rather than as human beings. If you look at them as human beings, you realize they are unequipped to succeed in the 21st century in a high-tech society, and also find themselves in a highly developed welfare state. What should we expect them to do?"

The GAO said it could not determine what factors contributed to the difference in welfare-recipient rates between the native and newly naturalized citizens.

However, it says the Immigration and Naturalization Service's green-card replacement program contributes to the "recent, rapid increase in naturalizations."

Many immigrants chose to become naturalized rather than pay for a new card.

The GAO also says statewide efforts to restrict public benefits is an incentive to become a legal citizen.

Mr. Gallegly was traveling from California to Washington yesterday and could not be reached for comment. GOP House staffers say the report has been forwarded to the Judiciary immigration and claims subcommittee to study whether congressional action is warranted.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The report is on line at: