Immigration and Welfare
Despite being known as the Land of Opportunity, every year more and more immigrants – both legal and illegal – end up on public assistance. Even though they are prohibited from accessing certain entitlement programs, welfare dependency among the foreign-born is higher than among native-born Americans. This is problematic because it further strains our social safety net, the purpose of which is to offer assistance to American citizens. Allowing non-citizens to access welfare benefits is irresponsible and an unfair burden on taxpayers which should be ended. The solution to this growing problem is to first more strictly enforce “public charge” laws. Further solutions should include moving toward a merit-based immigration system and pursuing a goal of overall reduction of current immigration levels.
High Immigrant Welfare Use
The immigrants currently being admitted into the U.S. are less skilled and less educated than the native population, which means they are more likely to inhabit lower income brackets and require public assistance. In 2017, the share of foreign-born individuals (14.5 percent) and non-citizens (18.6 percent) living below the poverty line is much higher than the share of native-born Americans living in poverty – 11.9 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Given their higher poverty rates, it is unsurprising that data shows immigrants are more dependent on welfare programs than native-born Americans. In 2014, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of households headed by a non-citizen took advantage of at least one welfare program, compared to just 35 percent among native-headed households. Furthermore, the high welfare usage rate for households headed by the foreign-born increases to 70 percent among those living in the U.S. for 10 years or more. There is also some anecdotal evidence of foreign-born individuals collecting welfare while simultaneously retaining assets in their countries of origin.
The Roots of the Problem
The extremely high levels of welfare use among immigrants can be largely attributed to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The goal of the legislation was to diversify the immigration flow into the country. The post-1965 immigration system – which remains in place today – is heavily skewed towards family-based immigration (also known as “chain migration”) at the expense of skills and education.
The United States has long had public charge laws to ensure that new immigrants are not a burden on society. In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) barred illegal aliens from welfare programs that receive federal funds. It also rendered immigrants ineligible for means-tested federal benefits for five years after admission to the United States. In response to complaints from pro-alien groups that the public charge rules were “draconian” and “anti-immigrant,” the Clinton administration back peddled, redefining “public charge” to allow both legal and illegal aliens to collect most types of welfare benefits without penalty. The Obama administration further broadened the Clinton-era guidelines, making even more benefits available to foreigners who never paid into our social safety net.
Illegal immigration further aggravates the problem. While illegal aliens are technically prohibited from receiving most means-tested federal welfare benefits by law, 26 states – that is more than half – currently offer benefits to individuals who are in the U.S. unlawfully. Moreover, illegal aliens also collect welfare on behalf of their U.S.-born children, who, based on a flawed interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment (“birthright citizenship”), are automatically counted as U.S. citizens. They are also entitled to free public education. Overall, illegal immigrants cost American taxpayers $116 billion annually, which includes the costs of welfare benefits they collect.
To tackle the problem of immigrant welfare dependency, President Trump signed a memorandum that will finally enforce a 23-year-old provision requiring sponsors of legal immigrants to reimburse the government for any social services the immigrant uses in the U.S. This step in the right direction came in the wake of the administration’s publication of a proposed public charge rule in late September 2018, which clearly defined a long-standing law aiming to ensure that new immigrants do not become burdens on American society.
In addition, we must reform our immigration system so that it is based on merit rather than (often distant) family connections. Doing so will ensure that arriving immigrants can be successful and self-sufficient, because they will possess the job skills necessary to participate fully in the U.S. economy. It is also important to bring our immigration levels from the over one million annually that we currently receive to a more sustainable 300,000 per year. Finally, we must secure our borders and reduce illegal immigration.