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March 1996, Volume 3, Number 3

CongressMoves on Immigration Reform

Congress is scheduled to debate on major reforms to US immigration law in March 1996.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up Sen. Alan Simpson's (R-WY) S. 1394 bill on February 29, and the full House is expected to debate the Immigration in the National Interest Act HR 2022 of Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX) the week of March 18.

The Simpson bill would reduce the number of immigrants admitted for employer/economic reasons from 140,000 to 90,000, and require US companies seeking immigrants to fill vacant jobs to pay foreign workers five percent more than the prevailing wage. In some cases, business would also have to pay the government a fee of $10,000 or 10 percent of the foreigner's salary, which ever is higher, to train Americans to fill the jobs.

Simpson's bill also modifies the system under which US employers can have admitted to the US non-immigrant foreign workers who temporarily fill US jobs. The US Department of Labor says that US employer applications for H-1B workers rose 82 percent between 1992 and 1994. Non-immigrant foreign workers are concentrated in California and Florida--an estimated 35 percent of the computer programmers in Silicon Valley were born abroad. Simpson's bill would cap the number of foreign H-1B workers at 65,000.

In urging swift passage of his bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asserted that "one-quarter of all federal prisoners are foreign born; ... one- quarter of legal immigrants are on welfare." The bill has 120 co-sponsors.

The Smith bill would enact new penalties for alien smuggling, build a triple fence along 14 miles of Mexican border, streamline asylum, and authorize another increase in the Border Patrol. The bill would eliminate immigration slots for adult brothers and sisters and most adult children of US citizens, while increasing the number of wives and minor children of legal immigrants allowed in legally each year. Legal immigration would be capped at 595,000 by 2002, down from 800,000 in 1995.

Businesses prefer the Smith version because it keeps the number of immigrants admitted for employer/economic reasons at 135,000 a year, and does not impose fees.

Most observers expect Congress to approve legislation that, inter alia, step up efforts to reduce illegal immigration by adding more Border Patrol agents and at least experiment with a system under which employers would be required to check whether newly-hired workers are eligible to work in the US. The number of legal immigrants would be reduced through the elimination of immigration slots for adult brothers and sisters of US citizens, offset in part by more immigration slots for the immediate families of immigrants in the US.

Opponents of immigration reform will first attempt to split comprehensive immigration bills into legal and illegal components, in the hope that separate bills can be tough on illegal immigration, but not drastically change the legal immigration system. Senator Simpson and Representative Smith countered efforts to split their bills by arguing that Americans want reductions in BOTH legal and illegal immigration.

Welfare. The Senate Immigration Subcommittee on February 6, 1996 held a hearing on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) usage by immigrants. SSI is a federal program that provides $25 billion annually in federal benefits that average $325 monthly to six million poor persons who are disabled or elderly. Since most US residents have US work experience, they obtain benefits from Social Security rather than SSI.

Under immigration law, immigrants coming to the US must prove that they have sufficient assets, or a US resident sponsor, so that they will not become a public charge in the US. In many cases, the US relatives of immigrants sign affidavits that assert that the US resident will provide support for the immigrant so that the immigrant will not need welfare.

Elderly. However, the courts have held that these affidavits of support are not legally binding, so that especially elderly immigrants with few assets, and no ability to earn a US income, apply for SSI despite the affidavits signed by their often adult children who promised to support them.

In testimony February 6, 1996, a Social Security Administration official testified that the number of noncitizens receiving SSI increased from 128,000 in 1982 to 738,000 in 1994. In 1996, one million resident aliens are expected to be receiving SSI payments totaling $5 billion, and they are expected to obtain an additional $9 billion in Medicaid payments.

US immigration law declares that aliens who become "public charges" within five years of entry are deportable unless the reason for their application for welfare occurred after their arrival. Many welfare programs have a waiting period during which newly arrived legal immigrants are not eligible for benefits--three years for SSI, five years for other programs.

Many non-US citizens apply for benefits as soon as this waiting period is up--25 percent of non-citizens receiving SSI applied in their fourth year in the US.

Simpson's bill would extend the period in which legal immigrants could not get SSI and other benefits from three to 10 years, which means sponsors of immigrants would have to promise to support their relatives for 10 years after their arrival in the US. Immigrants who received welfare payments for 12 months or more in any 60-month period would be subject to deportation.

Immigrants can become US citizens after five years, so some proposals in Congress would make aliens ineligible for benefits even if they became naturalized US citizens.

The US Census reported that, in an average month of 1992, about 34 million US residents --13 percent--were receiving benefits under one or more of seven programs--AFDC, General Assistance, SSI, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Federal or state rental assistance, and public housing. In calendar years 1991-92, the median duration of participation in these assistance programs was eight months, and the average recipient got $436 per month from AFDC/GA, SSI, and Food Stamps.

Almost two-thirds of the welfare recipients--20 million US residents--got assistance in each of the 24 months of 1991-92. About half of these long-term recipients got Food Stamps.

It was reported that the foreign born account for eight percent of households on public assistance and, because they tend to have larger families, they receive 14 percent of federal benefits. In California, foreign born account for 21 percent of the households and receive 40 percent of the benefits.

The US Census reported that about 13 percent of the nation's 4.2 million foreign-born mothers received Food Stamps in 1993, versus 15 percent of the 31.5 million US-born mothers. About one-fourth of all Hispanic mothers received Food Stamps, versus 13 percent of non-Hispanic mothers.

In 1993, 43 percent of refugees in the US received public assistance.

Asylum. One provision of both the House and Senate immigration reform bills would require foreigners to apply for asylum within 30 days of their arrival in the US. Currently, an estimated five percent of asylum applicants apply within 30 days of their arrival by completing an eight-page I-589 form.

The Clinton Administration opposes the 30-day limit. It argues that reforms already undertaken--doubling the number of asylum officers who hear claims to 325--cut the number of new asylum applications in half, to 53,000 in 1995, and 95 percent of the new claims filed are dealt with within six months--asylum applicants must wait six months for work permits.

Rep. Randy Tate (R-WA) has offered a bill that would make it impossible for any who has tried to illegally enter the US to enter as a legal immigrant. HR 2898, the One-Strike-You're-Out Immigration Act of 1996, has been embraced by FAIR, which says that it would give aliens a good reason not to try to enter illegally or overstay their visa.

"Bill to cut legal immigration comes under fire; foes want to split measure," Associated Press, February 28, 1996. Eric Schmitt, "Deep split on immigration curbs," Sacramento Bee, February 26, 1996; Jorge Banales, "Study: Immigrants in few US states," UPI, February 20, 1996. Sarah Jackson-Han, "Study adds fuel to political fire over US immigration," Agence France Presse, February 20, 1996. Marc Lacey, "Worker Verification Plan Provokes Intense Debate," Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1996. Ellen Davenport, "Bill would add to costs of hiring foreign workers," St. Petersburg Times, February 9, 1996. Gil Klein, "Congress Studies Legal Immigration," Richmond Times Dispatch, February 11, 1996. Celia Dugger, "Legislation poses peril to seekers of asylum," New York Times, February 13, 1996.