Academic journal article Health and Social Work

America's Most Cruel Xenophobia

Academic journal article Health and Social Work

America's Most Cruel Xenophobia

Article excerpt

The tutor watches Mon Vong's leathery face as the old woman struggles to wrap her upturned lips around the strange English words. Mon Vong anxiously fingers the corner of the list of questions she has been studying since December. Like the others in the naturalization class, she recently received a letter telling her that she will lose her only source of income, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), unless she can prove by July 1 that she has become a U.S. citizen.

The tutor, a young social work student, glances down at the colorfully dressed older women in the classroom, all so much shorter than he. They speak animatedly to one another in their own lilting language but stare with knitted brows at the papers he has given them. He knows that Mon Vong is a widow, her husband and children shot to death in the mountains of Laos before she fled for her life. She came reluctantly to the United States in 1988, "too old to work." She tends the six children of her clan neighbors, also cooking for and eating with them, while the adults go to work.

The social worker is working to help the women pass the citizenship test. However, Mon Vong, like the others, has never learned to read, even in her own language. His own voice wavers as he proceeds to the next question.

"Who was Abraham Lincoln?"

Mon Vong looks up tentatively; "He free the slaves?" She pauses, then, embarrassed. "I not sure."

Slaves, indeed, he thinks.

The confusion and hypocrisy engendered by the recent "welfare reform" have obscured the most vicious cuts of the 104th Congress: the termination of SSI, food stamps, and possibly Medicaid for elderly and disabled legal immigrants. Nationally, at least 400,000 legal immigrants are losing federal income benefits averaging about $370 per month. Those affected include some 65,000 legal immigrants residing in nursing homes. These cuts, while terrorizing immigrant communities, raise a cacophony of yet unanswered questions for health care providers and state policymakers. Vigilance toward local implementation of the federal cuts is needed in every state and major city to cushion the most heinous effects of the reforms on people like Mon Vong.

When and how did U.S. citizenship become equated with entitlement to assistance from the government? When did lack of citizenship become grounds for denial of the very subsistence on which disabled and elderly people like Mon Vong depend? Is this really what Congress intended last August when it passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) to end "welfare as we know it?" Why this recent wave of general hostility toward people like Mon Vong, and why is "naturalization" (becoming a citizen) now viewed as a solution?

The answers lie in our nation's recent immigration policies and policymakers' commitment to deficit reduction, along with Americans' general ignorance. Immigrants, seen as a reason for the high cost of social services, were especially vulnerable in recent attempts to reduce government expenditures. As Espenshade (1996) noted, "Anti-immigrant sentiment and fiscal conservatism have coalesced to form a new fiscal politics of immigration" (p. 1).


The United States has always experienced immigration in waves; our shores have opened in times of industrial expansion and closed during economic downturns. The largest waves came a century ago in response to the insatiable demands for labor during the Industrial Revolution. However, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 imposed the first permanent annual immigration quotas and established preferences for immigrants from northern and western Europe. After the act's passage the U.S. foreign-born population declined from almost 15 million in the late 1920s to fewer than 10 million by the late 1960s. The 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (P.L. 89-236) established rules that subsequently facilitated the shift away from European immigration (Espenshade, Fix, Zimmermann, & Corbett, 1997). …

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