Welfare Reform and Latinos = Immigration and Cultural Politics

Article excerpt

The Story Is About More Than Moving From Welfare to Work

Throw out the book on welfare. Junk that Rolodex. Learn some Spanish. When it comes to covering welfare reform's effects on U.S. Latinos, journalists will have to step beyond the anti-poverty beat. To explain what's going on, they'll also need to know the nasty cultural politics of immigration, race and ethnicity.

You didn't think the federal 1996 welfare law was only about work, responsibility and dignity, did you?

For a sizable number of Latino immigrants, it was immigration reform in disguise. Congress had two ideas in mind. One was to pay for welfare reform for American citizens by cutting assistance to immigrants. The other idea was to persuade "undesirable" immigrants to go home and discourage others from coming.

For example, let's look at Ofelia M. I met with her at a nonprofit clinic in Palo Alto, California, not long after President Clinton signed the welfare law. She and her husband had left Mexico in 1994 to clean offices and houses in the cradle of Silicon Valley. With a monthly income of $900, they could barely meet their rent and pay for basic necessities. When she became pregnant and needed prenatal medical care, she went to the clinic for checkups and to receive $50 in food coupons from a federal nutrition program.

The 1996 welfare law gave the states a choice on those coupons. A state can decide to either end eligibility for undocumented women, or approve its continuation. Either way, it wouldn't cost the state a dime. The coupons are entirely funded by the federal government.

A no-brainer decision?

Well, no. Pete Wilson, the Republican governor of California at the time, threatened to cut off the program to undocumented mothers. He relented only after intense political pressure.

Before Wilson backed off, I asked Ofelia in Spanish if she would return to Mexico if she were disqualified from the program. Ofelia smiled. She looked at her daughter, an American citizen by birth. "No, we wouldn't go back," she told me. "We have to think about her and our family."

The welfare law also allows states to eliminate federal food stamps for legal and illegal immigrants. Wilson managed to eliminate food stamps for immigrants who have arrived since 1996.

More recently, The New York Times reported on how New York state is asking applicants for food stamps for proof of citizenship and immigration status--as permitted by the welfare reform law. While their American-born children should qualify, many undocumented mothers aren't applying out of fear of deportation. If the most important part of the news is setting it accurately within its broader context, then we can't write about Latinos and welfare without writing about immigration.

We can trace the federally legislated welfare mandates involving immigrants back to the passage of California's Proposition 187. Passed in 1994, the measure was a masterful piece of political scapegoating. Prop. 187 maintained that California's generous welfare system and schools were a magnet for illegal immigrants looking for a free ride. Never mind that illegal immigrants did not qualify for basic welfare, formerly called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or for non-emergency Medicaid. Among other things, Prop. 187 attempted to abolish public education and health services to undocumented children and adults.

After 18 years of reporting on welfare and immigration policies, I have concluded that a lot of Californians were genuinely worried about the fiscal costs of immigration. But that's not all. As the number of Latinos and Asians grows, many Californians feared losing their status as the dominant culture in the state. Either way, the majority of voters believed that the state's generous welfare system was a magnet for immigrants, legal or illegal, and Prop. 187 passed.

While a federal district court quickly and decisively declared most of Prop. …