Concerned that welfare abuse by noncitizens strains the country’s social safety net, the White House is taking steps to stop taxpayer money from paying for government assistance to immigrants.
On May 23, President Donald Trump ordered government agencies to enforce laws requiring those who sponsor immigrants to pay back the government for any welfare benefits immigrants may use. The memo noted that more than half of all households headed by a noncitizen use at least one welfare program, and the number jumps to 78 percent when the noncitizen has no more than a high school education.
Matt Weidinger, resident fellow in poverty studies at the American Enterprise Institute, praised the move: “While the president’s approach to immigration is sometimes misguided and too often antagonistic, this step is a good and reasonable one to make sure that public assistance is directed primarily at U.S. citizens.” He added that “the principle behind these policies—expecting noncitizens to show they can support themselves as a condition of entry—is consistent with American laws and traditions dating back to Colonial times.”
Two-thirds of immigrants who enter the United States do so based on family ties. To get approved for entry, the immigrant must have a sponsor, often a family member, who will take financial responsibility and repay the government for any welfare benefits the immigrant uses. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare, and legal immigrants can qualify for most federal income-based benefits after they have been in the country for five years, at which point many are also eligible to apply for citizenship. Some states offer benefits to immigrants out of their own tax money. Last week, the California State Assembly passed a bill that would make it the first state to offer Medicaid to illegal immigrants.
A 1996 immigration reform act established that, with a few exceptions, sponsors must pay for welfare benefits their immigrants use until the immigrant becomes a citizen or has worked in the United States for 10 years, but the law has not been universally enforced. The U.S. government also ordered federal agencies in 1996 to consider household income in determining sponsor eligibility. Critics argue that the current minimum income for sponsors, 125 percent of the poverty line, is too low, and people get family members into the country and then rely on welfare benefits to keep them afloat.
But the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, published a study in May 2018 that seems to indicate the problem the Trump administration seeks to correct is not really an issue. Though a large proportion of noncitizens receive welfare, they make up a small percentage of the total number of welfare recipients.
“Overall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans,” Alex Nowrasteh and Robert Orr wrote for Cato. In fiscal year 2017, for example, there were about 42.1 million recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. About 1.8 million—slightly more than 4 percent—were noncitizens, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, told me he does not think the Trump administration is wrong to enforce this law, but he is also “not convinced that there is a significant problem of U.S. citizen family sponsors failing to live up to their commitments.”
Soerens pointed out that households headed by noncitizens often include U.S. citizen children, spouses, or both: “These citizens are every bit as much U.S. citizens under the law as my children and wife are, and they’re not abusing the system to apply for assistance for which they qualify.”