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Immigrants, Welfare and the GOP

By E. Clay Shaw Jr. and Lamar Smith
Wednesday, May 28 1997; Page A19


Mickey Kaus's article excoriating Republicans for ending welfare benefits for noncitizens ["How the GOP Discredits Welfare Reform," op-ed, April 25] is merely the latest in a host of articles and editorials in The Post critical of Republican welfare policy on aliens. Reading The Post, no one would know how carefully the Republican policy had been thought through, how consistent the policy is with long-standing principles of immigration policy, nor how popular the policy is with most Americans.

More than 100 years ago, our country's first law on immigration ordered immigration officials to deny entry to anyone who might need public aid. Then, in the early part of this century, the law was strengthened to provide for deportation of any alien who actually became a public charge. Thus, ending welfare for aliens who do not have a strong record of work in the United States is simply an extension of our country's historical policy.

Between 1982 and 1995, the number of alien recipients of Supplemental Security Income increased by more than 500 percent. By 1996, legal aliens, who make up less than 6 percent of the population, received over half the cash benefits from the SSI program for the elderly. According to recent research at Harvard University, alien households in the United States are more likely to receive welfare than households with only citizens. In fact, many aliens immigrate to America with the express intent of accessing welfare as soon as they are eligible. Books such as "What You Need to Know About Life in America," sold abroad, have extensive chapters detailing how to apply for U.S. welfare programs.

Clearly, welfare for aliens, which violates long-standing immigration policy to begin with, has grown out of control. When American taxpayers are spending more than $8 billion a year providing welfare benefits to people who claimed they were coming to America for opportunity, something must be done.

And it was. Last year's welfare reform law ended most welfare for aliens who have not worked to earn their benefits. Now the complaint raised by Kaus and others is that aliens who were already receiving welfare are threatened with destitution.

But the facts show otherwise. To move the nation from the policy of abundant welfare for aliens to carefully restricted welfare for aliens, Congress created a host of provisions designed to ease the transition for those already receiving welfare. First, Congress provided everyone with a one-year transition to adjust to the new policy.

Second, aliens who become citizens are eligible to continue receiving benefits. Government experts predict that eventually half the aliens who would otherwise lose their benefits will become citizens. Moreover, the frequently reported horror stories about aliens too old or disabled to learn English or pass the citizenship test are greatly exaggerated. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has a host of waivers for elderly or disabled aliens trying to naturalize.

Third, Congress allowed states to continue providing benefits from both the cash welfare programs for children (formerly the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program) and the Medicaid program. The federal money that states used to spend on noncitizens and their children is included in the block grant that replaced AFDC. But because states are no longer required to give benefits to every noncitizen, and because the number of families receiving benefits from this program is now in its steepest decline in history, states will have billions of dollars in surplus money to spend on needy aliens if they choose to do so.

Fourth, Republicans exempted three important groups from losing welfare benefits: aliens who have worked for 10 years (including husbands and wives who together meet the 10-year requirement), those who have served or are serving in the military, and refugees (who, because they often have left their countries abruptly, are allowed to receive benefits for five years after entry to give them time to adjust to life in America).

We estimate that if these categories are combined, around 60 percent of aliens receiving welfare benefits when the bill passed will continue receiving benefits.

What of the other 40 percent? The administration and many Democrats want to simply continue benefits for these aliens at a cost to taxpayers of more than $3 billion per year. But Republicans object. Relatives, not taxpayers, should be the first line of support. Most of these aliens have relatives and friends in the United States who have signed sponsorship affidavits promising to help the alien if the need arose.

The recent budget talks produced a bipartisan compromise that would continue benefits for disabled aliens who were in the country when the welfare bill passed last August. We regard this compromise as flawed because it makes taxpayers the first line of assistance for hundreds of thousands of aliens whose families promised to support them as a condition of entry. Even so, given the overall accomplishments of the balanced budget plan and the retention of the basic policy of banning welfare for new arrivals in the U.S., we will recommend that our colleagues support this compromise.

However, the administration also wants to guarantee benefits for aliens who become disabled in the future, thereby reestablishing the discredited policy of permanent welfare for new arrivals. This policy will not be accepted by Congress.

Republican reform of welfare is consistent with long-standing principles of immigration, is supported by the American people, saves billions of dollars and will improve the productivity of immigrants who continue to be welcome to our shores.

Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) is chairman of the human resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) is chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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