A draft plan, under discussion inside the Trump administration, promises to exclude would-be immigrants who might need public assistance and to deport, whenever possible, those already dependent on welfare.
The draft executive order, as written, illuminates one of the ways in which the Trump administration plans to deliver on campaign-trail promises to halt what candidate Trump repeatedly described as the intentional abuse of American social service programs. The effort, as described, appears to want to reduce immigrants’ impact on American taxpayers and the workforce. But there are just a few problems with Trump’s draft order.
They begin with the facts.
The language in the order, as written, portrays immigrants generally as a drain on the American taxpayer, and would direct the government to address the issue in several ways. The draft order would:
- Direct various federal agencies to more strictly identify and exclude potential immigrants likely to need certain types of public aid and deport those already in the United States who have had to rely on social services help.
- Command federal officials to determine how much the federal government could save — it specifically suggests a savings of $100 billion — if immigrants were limited to getting “only the public benefits that they are eligible to receive.”
- Compel federal officials to demand reimbursement from people inside the United States who made legal promises to support immigrant relatives, if necessary.
- Require social service agencies to report immigrant benefit recipients to federal authorities.
The order calls for lots of research too, including how the estimated $100 billion in savings the order says these activities would generate could be brought to bear on domestic poverty along with regular reports monitoring the number of immigrants blocked, reimbursements demanded and the status of monitoring efforts to stop immigrants from receiving public benefits.
But, almost none of the issues identified in the draft order exist as they are described in the order.
Immigration is complex. Citizenship status can change and, in many U.S. households, citizens and legal and illegal immigrants live together, making the rights and benefits available to them difficult to quantify or classify as aid to “aliens.” Long-standing U.S. law already makes it rare for noncitizens to receive most forms of public assistance, such as cash payments. And, experts in immigration law and the nation’s public assistance programs say there’s little data to support the administration’s claim that immigrants disproportionately draw on public aid.
There are at least 5.1 million children living in the United States with a parent who is an unauthorized immigrant, according to an analysis published by the Migration Policy Institute in January 2016. More than 70 percent of these children are also U.S. citizens, eligible for a full slate of social service benefits as any other child in a family with a similar income. And immigrant children are more likely than others to live in low-income families. As many of those children are minors, they cannot simply be given control of the federal food or cash aid for which they qualify. The benefits have to be controlled by their parents, immigrants who are the heads of their households.
These families offer a helpful framework for thinking about any promise to surgically extract needy immigrants, said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
“The reality is that immigrants and citizens live together, work together and inhabit the same communities and neighborhoods,” said Broder, who specializes in policies affecting access to health care, public education and aid. “For good reason, we want every baby to be born healthy, every young child to have basic nutrition and the people around us to be physically healthy enough to contribute to our economy. When you ignore that, the consequences can quickly become more costly in terms of human beings and taxpayer dollars than providing services in the first place.”
Though the draft orders characterize a ban on immigrants receiving welfare as something new, or at least insufficiently enforced, some of what it lays out as proposals for new immigration and welfare policy already exists. And what the order depicts as poor enforcement is actually more like a long line of laws, legal decisions, rules and official guides for federal employees that have made public charge deportations rare.
For more than 100 years, U.S. law has allowed federal officials to bar immigrants who, based on a specific formula, seem likely to need public assistance after arrival. That test is known as the “public charge” law. The law technically allows federal immigration authorities to deport immigrants who become public dependents within five years of their arrival and prevent legal immigrants from moving toward citizenship for the same reason.
Individuals living in the United States who want to help their relatives enter the country also are already required to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that they earn enough money to support themselves and those hoping to immigrate. Anyone signing such an affidavit also agrees to pay back public assistance should their relatives receive it.
On top of that, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, widely known as “welfare reform.” In addition to the lifetime limits for all welfare recipients, the law significantly restricted immigrant access to the U.S. social safety net.
“It was definitely the biggest change in policy regarding immigrant access to means-tested benefits ever,” said Ron Haskins, one of the chief architects of the welfare reform law and a Republican congressional committee staffer who worked with the Clinton administration on the matter. Today, Haskins is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he co-directs the Center on Children and Families.
Those reforms barred illegal immigrants from many programs designed for the poor, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute. She studies demographic change, immigration, global refugee movements and their municipal implications.
Much to the chagrin of many Republicans in Congress, some of these rules were scaled back during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Haskins said. The reason for the rollbacks: Many Democrats were never fond of the specifics of the welfare reform law, Haskins said. Clinton was unsure, and just two cabinet members and advisers in the room with Clinton when he decided to sign the 1996 law thought the immigrant provisions should be included, Haskins said.
Politics wasn’t the only driver. In the years that followed welfare reform, documented reports of abuses, inaccurate reads of the public charge law, exorbitant fines 33 times the value of benefits provided and other stories began to reach Washington, Broder said.
By 1999, administration officials clarified the public charge law so that participation in food aid programs, seeking help with medical care, job training, education or child care clearly could not be considered violations of the country’s prohibition on public dependency. Since 2002, immigrant children have been eligible for food aid during the five-year waiting period required for adults, and since 2009, states have had the option of providing health care coverage to legal immigrant children and pregnant women within their first years in the United States.
Still today, immigrant access to Social Security assistance is seldom granted, Singer said. Legal immigrants — including green-card holders — must navigate a mandatory five-year waiting period for eligibility in most aid programs. And, once on cash aid rolls, legal immigrants become subject to the same lifetime limits that apply to everyone else. What’s more, some immigrants never become eligible for cash aid, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). To do so they have to fit certain criteria and live in a certain states. Across the country, refugees — people fleeing war, famine or persecution — receive six months of assistance after they arrive in the U.S., then become ineligible for most aid for several years.
None of that adds up to a situation anything like that implied by Trump’s draft executive order. Immigrants do not make up overwhelming majorities of those receiving public assistance.
Immigrant families are less likely to receive food benefits than other households, according an Urban Institute analysis of federal 2008 and 2009 SNAP data. The pattern held but the gap between immigrant and native-born families narrowed when it came to cash aid and public health insurance.
In poor families, about 18 percent of children with native-born parents received cash help — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — in 2008 and 2009, compared with about 12 percent of children with foreign-born parents, according to the study. Among children in poor families, 77 percent of those with U.S.-born parents and 69 percent of those with foreign-born parents had Medicaid or CHIP coverage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not respond to a request for detailed data on the citizenship and national origin status of more recent or current SNAP (food stamps) recipients. A Department of Health and Human Services representative said the department does not have such data for Medicaid users. But an annual report on TANF recipients compiled by the agency suggests strongly that the inferences in Trump’s draft order are not well founded.
In fiscal year 2015, 744,257 adults were enrolled in the cash assistance program along with about 2.37 million children who live with ineligible adults. That group of children includes some living with legal and illegal immigrant parents. But, noncitizens made up about 280,300 — or just 9 percent — of all the people receiving cash aid.