THE WALK TO THE H STREET welfare office from Washington, D.C.'s Union Station takes a good 20 minutes, longer if you've got small children in tow. You see manicured gardens give way to empty lots, bottles in brown paper bags, and a grocery store that's fenced-in to prevent cart theft. When you get to the office and ask a few questions about eligibility--I was inquiring on behalf of a made-up friend, undocumented, with two children born in the United States--it seems that you will often get the wrong answers. But that hardly seems to matter: If you are an immigrant--a legal permanent resident, a refugee, or an "illegal alien"--you probably wouldn't be in the office in the first place because you would be too afraid to apply for benefits at all.
"Welfare reform" is an ugly phrase for many U.S. immigrants. The 1996 welfare-reform act included a five-year ban on benefits for immigrants arriving in the United States after August 22, 1996. But many of their children--the vast majority of whom are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for benefits--do not receive those benefits, because their parents are afraid to go to the welfare office for fear of facing humiliating treatment, jeopardizing their immigration status, or being forced to pay back benefits. Instead, many immigrants--who compose 20 percent of the low-wage workforce--toil impossible hours in low-paying jobs, without the supports to which their children are entitled.
But the political tide may be turning in immigrants' favor, just in time for this year's welfare-reauthorization debate. President George W. Bush is in something of a political bind, given his courting of the large immigrant vote, especially in California and Texas. The normally nativist Republican right is looking for ways to signal compassion for immigrants. In May, President Bush, with great fanfare, restored food-stamp benefits to immigrants who have legally lived in the United States for five years, when he signed the farm bill. But the Republican welfare bill, which passed the House May 16, does nothing to restore benefits to immigrants.
Numerous bills circulating in Congress would restore benefits such as Medicaid to immigrants or English-as-a-second-language (ESL) training as a work support--an important key to helping immigrant families leave poverty. As the Senate takes up the welfare bill in late June, even modest restorations could open the door to expansions in the future, an important first step in moving immigrant families from "working poverty to working dignity," as Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center says.
ACCORDING TO MICHAEL FIX, A principal research associate at the Urban Institute and director of its Immigration Studies Program, the language of the 1996 welfare debate was dominated by three damaging notions: the "welfare magnet," "welfare dependency," and the "immigrant version of the welfare queen." The welfare-magnet theory posits that generous welfare benefits draw immigrants in droves to take advantage of a cushy free ride. These immigrants will become reliant on an indulgent system (welfare dependency), and even import relatives to further bilk U.S. taxpayers (the immigrant version of the welfare queen). At the 1996 congressional hearings on welfare reform, one alleged abuse involved high-income Chinese families who, though they could afford to support their elderly parents, enrolled them in the Supplemental Security Income program anyway.
The claim that immigrants abused welfare, along with Democratic pressure to cut costs (for reasons of deficit reduction) and the Republican push to reduce federal spending (for the usual ideological reasons), made continuing benefits to immigrants politically unattractive. Although immigrants are 11 percent of the U.S. population, cutting benefits to them provided nearly 40 percent of the welfare-reform savings. Immigrants became politically expendable and convenient scapegoats--and their benefits were axed with little public outcry. …