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CPRC October 4, 1996

CA Policy Seminar Immigration Panel


What hath Congress Wrought?

The Implications of Immigration and Welfare Reform for the US and CA


Susan Martin, Executive Director, Commission on Immigration Reform

October 4, 1996

Illegal Immigration 2
Removing Aliens 2
Legal Immigration 2
What's Next? 3
California Implications 4

In 1996, three major laws that had their origins in the 1994 and 1995 recommendations of the Commission on Immigration Reform were enacted that affect immigrants and immigration: The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed into law on April 24, 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed into law on August 22, 1996, and the Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act, signed into law on September 30, 1996.

Susan Martin, executive director of the CIR, emphasized during the October 4 discussion of their likely effects on the US and CA that there is never a "good time" to make immigration policy, but that 1996 was particularly difficult because of theneed to find savings in government expenditures, and American insecurity and frustration.

The CIR's recommendations were based on two principles. First, the US should do more to reduce illegal immigration. To accomplish this goal, CIR recommended that the borders be "managed" to prevent the entry of illegal immigrants, increasing penalties for smuggling, and testing systems to help employers determine quickly and reliably who is legally authorized to work in the US.

Second, the CIR recommended that the US strike a "grand bargain" on legal immigration--reduce the growth of immigration, but maintain legal immigrants' full access to the social safety net. Specifically, CIR recommended that the US speed up the admission of immediate family members of immigrants living in the US, but eliminate the right of brothers and sisters of US citizens to immigrate.

Congress adopted many of the CIR's recommendations to reduce illegal immigration, but rejected the CIR's grand bargain proposal.

Illegal Immigration

The CIR urged a three prong effort to reduce and deter illegal immigration: prevent entry over borders, prevent those inside the US from getting jobs or benefits and, if detected, quickly remove illegal aliens from the US.

Congress agreed to add Border Patrol agents and support personnel to deter illegal entries over US borders, and also agreed to add staff to expedite legal entries. However, Congress did not add significantly to efforts to prevent illegal aliens in the US from getting jobs: US employers may, but do not have to, participate in experimental employee verification systems. The INS will get 1200 more inspectors, including 900 whose primary responsibility is to deal with employer sanctions and alien smuggling.

However, at the last minute, Congress refused to authorize the hiring of 350 more labor inspectors to the DOL.

Removing Aliens

The anti-terrorism bill made it easier to remove from the US aliens who are convicted of felonies in the US. Once apprehended, criminal aliens must be detained, and they have fewer opportunities to appeal to stay in the US and, under the new immigration law, they may be required to serve their sentences in their country of origin, if the US negotiates agreements with other countries.

The immigration bill also made it easier to exclude foreigners who enter the US without valid documents. If an unauthorized alien applies for asylum to remain in the US, she must make a credible claim to an INS asylum officer. If the INS officer rejects her claim as not credible, then she has one appeal to an immigration judge, who must make a decision within 7 days.

Unauthorized aliens in the US for seven or more years may apply for "suspension of deportation," an acknowledgment that, over that time, the alien may have developed US roots. However, Congress adopted a tougher standard for suspension of deportation, and limited the number of foreigners who can obtain this relief to 4000 per year.

The new immigration law allows the US Attorney General to deport without any judicial review any illegal alien apprehended inside the US, who has been in the US for less than two years.

Legal Immigration

According to Susan Martin, the US legal immigration system, which manages immigration by backlogs or waiting lists, needs a major overhaul. Over 1.1 million spouses and children of legal immigrants living in the US are waiting--up to 10 years--to come to the US. Many do not wait; they come illegally. Similarly, there are 1.7 million siblings, such as the adult brothers and sisters of US citizens, in the Philippines, Mexico, and other countries waiting, sometimes 20 to 30 years, until they receive permission to migrate legally to the US.

The CIR recommended that the US eliminate immigration slots for brothers and sisters of US citizens. However, an unusual alliance between business and religious and ethnic groups prevented changes to the legal immigration system, but not changes to the US welfare system that make most legal immigrants ineligible for benefits.

The CIR recommended that the US draw a firm line between the access of legal and illegal immigrants to welfare and other public assistance in the US. The CIR recommended that illegal immigrants receive only emergency services, and those authorized by the US constitution, including K-12 education for illegal alien children.

The CIR recommended that legal immigrants be eligible for the same public assistance services as US citizens, but that sponsorship agreements be made legally binding--if a US citizen or legal immigrant agreed to support a relative, and that relative, after arriving in the US, applied for welfare, the applicant would be assumed to have access to the income and assets of the sponsor, and thus likely not be eligible for benefits.

In order to sponsor the admission of an immigrant, a US resident would have to earn at least 125 percent of the poverty line for the sponsor and the immigrant(s) who would arrive, and sign an affidavit promising to support the immigrant in the US. The US-sponsor could have another US-cosponsor.

The welfare law makes newly-arrived legal immigrants not eligible for most welfare benefits for at least five years after their arrival in the US.

What's Next?

Susan Martin believes that immigration, which accounts for about 40 percent of US population growth, will continue to be a prominent issue in the US and California. Four issues not addressed in 1996 are likely to get attention: legal immigration, refugees, immigrant policy, and the administration of US immigration.

Martin believes that the US will eventually have to strike some type of Grand Bargain of the sort recommended by the CIR because. With legal immigration rising, and welfare services ending, poor immigrants may become more vulnerable and visible.

Second, the end of the cold war has eliminated the major rationale for refugee admissions over the past 50 years--providing a haven for those fleeing communism. The US must rethink what it wants to accomplish with refugee policy--just who among the world's 25 million refugees should US admit to start over in the US?

Third, the US has admitted about 15 million immigrants since 1980, and many of them are not faring well in the US economy. As immigrants and US citizens compete in a labor market crowded by ex-welfare recipients, the US may have to consider immigrant integration policies.

Fourth, the INS is one of the few federal agencies whose budget has doubled in a time of reduced government spending. The US needs to study what has become a large and expensive system for managing immigration.

California Implications

Phil Romero explained why Governor Wilson in the early 1990s led a campaign to reduce illegal immigration. The 1991-92 recession increased the demand for state-funded services, but made it impossible to pay for more state services. However, immigration continued to bring large numbers of people into the state who needed state-funded services, including unauthorized aliens.

According to Romero, Wilson thought that the federal government should either reimburse CA for the cost of providing services to illegal aliens, or prevent their entry. When the federal government did neither, Wilson endorsed a state effort to reduce services to unauthorized aliens, Proposition 187.

David Illig explained that the major assistance programs affected by 1996 immigration and welfare legislation include AFDC, which had about 380,000 legal immigrants on the rolls in summer 1996, Food Stamps, with about 436,000 non-US citizen recipients, SSI, with 331,000 immigrant recipients, and in-home supportive services, with 55,000 non-US citizen recipients. Perhaps 500,000 non-US citizens now receiving one or more welfare benefits may lose them under 1996 legislation.

The major fear in CA is that, as non-US citizens are removed from welfare rolls, state and local government may have to provide assistance to them. Under CA law, county governments must provide locally-paid-for General Assistance to persons not eligible for any other benefits who need assistance, and in July 1996, about 150,000 persons in CA were receiving assistance that cost county governments $300 to $400 million per year.

CA politicians are waiting until after the November 1996 elections to decide how to respond to the non-eligibility of most newly-arrived immigrants for welfare benefits, and the removal of immigrants from the welfare rolls. Among the options are to prolong the eligibility of current immigrant recipients--non-US citizens currently receiving Food Stamps can continue to do so until April 1, 1996, encourage naturalization, or simply ignore federal sanctions that are threatened if CA does not remove immigrants as the law requires.

One proposal is to have parallel welfare programs in CA--a 100 percent federally-funded program that meets all federal criteria, and a 100-percent state-funded program that would permit e.g. people to draw benefits longer than five years, and perhaps serve some immigrants.