New Nativism and the Triumph
of Post–Civil Rights Politics
The passage of PRWORA in August 1996 heralded the success of a “post–civil rights consensus” in American politics. Americans had come to embrace the idea that race no longer determines individual success or failure, and that the government should only help those who help themselves. The emerging consensus among liberal politicians, scholars, and journalists around the cultural nature of welfare reflected a confidence that the nation had moved past its own history of denigrating the “cultures” of nonwhite people. With his set of black friends and New South background, President Bill Clinton was well situated to usher in a postwelfare world that played on racial imagery and ensured a racially bifurcated workforce while disavowing that race had anything to do with it. Indeed, the PRWORA sent a stark message about race and citizenship in late twentieth-century America. By marking who would have and who would be denied access to state protection and public benefits, welfare reform was a form of civic disfranchisement that had long roots in the racialized politics of American entitlements.
Equally historic was the PRWORA's intervention in the arena of U.S. immigration policy. Welfare reform served as a “back door” to immigration reform as it widened the gap between citizens and legal immigrants, created immigrant categories entirely new to U.S. law, and opened up new channels of surveillance and information-sharing between social service agencies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Riding on the political momentum of California's Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot initiative that sought to bar undocumented immigrants from most social services, welfare reform signaled the emergence of an anti-immigrant agenda markedly different from other periods of nativism in U.S. history.1