Immigration Is Fueling Poverty Rate

It is irrational to maintain a government policy that is increasing the burdens on our social welfare programs.

Two new studies provide compelling evidence that, amid an unprecedented economic boom, U.S. immigration policy is fueling an increase in poverty in the U.S. Both the Urban Institute-a Washington-based think tank-and the federal General Accounting Office have found exceptionally high rates of welfare dependence and poverty among immigrants and newly naturalized citizens.

While ostensibly making the case for restoring welfare benefits to immigrants, the Urban Institute report, "All Under One Roof: Mixed-Status Families in an Era of Reform," found that poverty among immigrant households is dramatically higher than among the rest of the population. According to the study, one-third of such households have income levels of less than 125% of the official poverty rate, and in the nation's largest county, Los Angeles, immigrant households constitute 59% of those classified as poor.

The GAO report found that newly naturalized citizens use public assistance programs in much greater numbers than the native born. The study examined 927,000 people who became U.S. citizens during 1996 and 1997 and found that their dependence on government assistance programs was, in some cases, triple that of the rest of the population. In California, for instance, which is home to the greatest number of immigrants, 23.7% of newly naturalized citizens are receiving Medicaid benefits, compared with 8.2% of

'In California . . . 23.7% of newly naturalized citizens are receiving Medicaid benefits.'

Californians as a whole. Nationally, the price tag for providing public assistance just to those who acquired U.S. citizenship during this period was $735 million.

This information alone should be enough to lead our government to question our immigration policy. But the GAO report raises another red flag that ought to be sounding

alarm bells in Congress: The number of people who became citizens in the fiscal year 1996 was triple the previous peak in the naturalization rate. It also coincided with changes in federal welfare policy, which made noncitizens ineligible for many welfare programs. Thus, it is fair to surmise that the stampede to become American citizens was not a sudden outpouring of patriotism but rather motivated by immigrants' fear that they would lose their government subsidies. But is this a motivation that is really in the long-term interests of the nation?

Rising poverty attributable to our immigration policy and the apparent surge in naturalizations to retain eligibility for public assistance programs is a scenario that the late Barbara Jordan cautioned against in her report to Congress as chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Congresswoman Jordan, a Democrat from Texas, warned that our failure to control illegal immigration and the lack of skills-based admission criteria for most immigrants would inevitably lead to a new underclass in our society. She also stressed that becoming an American ought to be an expression of commitment on the part of immigrants to this country, not simply an affiliation of convenience.

Given the fact that what Jordan predicted apparently is coming true, it is incumbent on Congress to enact the basic reforms that her commission recommended. Those include enforcement of laws to deter illegal aliens from coming to seek work and collect benefits in this country and, at least initially, a rollback of legal immigration levels from about 900,000 a year toward more traditional, moderate levels of approximately 500,000. : In addition, the commission's recommendations, which have been ignored by Congress, urged that the selection process be changed to emphasize the personal skills that immigrants possess.

It is simply irrational to maintain an immigration policy that is contributing mightily to the growth of poverty in our country and increasing the burdens on our social welfare programs, and doing so during a period of prosperity and nearly full employment. Congress, and particularly the Republican leadership, erroneously believed in 1996 that they could "fix" the immigration problem by denying immigrants public assistance. Leaving aside the question of whether that was a desirable solution, it clearly has proved to be an untenable one. The alarming poverty rates among immigrants in general and the cost of providing public assistance to newly naturalized citizens have proved that approach to be a failure. In 1999, the only way to fix the immigration problem is to fix the broken immigration policy.

Dan Stein is the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform based in Washington.