Academic journal article Social Justice

The Impact of Welfare Reform on Asian Immigrant Communities

Academic journal article Social Justice

The Impact of Welfare Reform on Asian Immigrant Communities

Article excerpt

The politics surrounding welfare reform remain inseparably tied to the racial politics embroiled in the movement for immigration reform. As we reach the 21st century, we are reminded of an anti-immigrant movement that 100 years ago was central to the definition of citizenship and the national identity. Coined the "New Nativism," the past decade of anti-immigrant sentiment and discourse resonates racialized hostility and insists on saving America for "Americans." To the proponents of immigration reform, immigration in general is a threat to the "nation," which is conceived of as a singular, predominantly EuroAmerican, English-speaking culture (Chavez, 1997: 63).(1) New nativist discourse is a response to the fear of an emerging majority of people of color that challenges assumed understandings of American culture, questions assimilationism, and asserts racial diversity. Presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan voiced this threat in 1994 by stating, "a non-white majority is envisioned if today's immigration continues" (Buchanan, 1994).(2) The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act signed by President Clinton on August 22, 1996, codifies the popular racial politics that scapegoats immigrants and demands their exclusion and disenfranchisement from our increasingly multicultural society.

The assault on immigrants' rights to public benefits became most striking in 1994, with California's Proposition 187, popularly known as the "Save Our State" initiative.(3) Passed with a strong majority by Californians, Proposition 187 reflected fears that undocumented immigrants were overutilizing public resources such as health care, education, and economic assistance at the expense of poor working-class "Americans." Racial-gendered images of migrant women crossing the border to have their children and receive medical care through state-funded health care services played on working- and middle-class voters' resentments against "nonAmericans" who allegedly received benefits from their tax dollars. Shortly after passage of Proposition 187, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich promised as Speaker of the House that he would preside over a freewheeling congressional debate about the "cultural meanings of being American" (Healy, 1994: A1).(4)

Federal programs have never been available to undocumented immigrants, with the exception of emergency health care, immunizations, WIC (nutritional assistance for poor women, infants, and children), and education (in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court ruled that the United States Constitution guarantees undocumented children an equal education). Yet, "illegal aliens" have been charged repeatedly with draining the public welfare system. Despite counter-evidence that undocumented immigrants contribute more to national, state, and local economies than they take out in assistance - according to one study, immigrants contribute $90 billion in taxes while taking only five billion dollars in social services (Hernandes-Truyol, 1997: 254) - a 59% majority of California voters believed them to be a drain on the public treasury.

By the mid- 1990s, the sharp economic downturn seen in the earlier years of the decade had been reversed. However, the mood and hostility toward immigrants had escalated to a national "immigration problem." The movement for tougher restrictions on legal immigrants focused on limiting immigration altogether and on restricting access to public services to noncitizens. In June 1995, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by Barbara Jordan of Texas, recommended that legal immigration into the United States be sharply reduced (Hook, 1995: A1). Florida representative E. Clay Shaw, Jr., proposed that only citizens be provided benefits such as AFDC, Food Stamps, and Medicaid, arguing that such measures would take away the attraction of people to come to this country (Shogren, 1994: A1). By 1996, Pat Buchanan promised voters that if elected, all immigration would be halted for five years. …

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