Chilling effects

By Michelle Chen May 29, 2009

Clinton-era welfare reform is perhaps best known for shoving people off the welfare rolls at a breakneck speed. A more subtle impact has been a drastic restriction on immigrants’ access to public programs. Currently, most immigrants are subject to long waiting periods and other restrictions before they qualify for welfare benefits, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. So California’s recent moves to cut benefits and services for immigrants are taking place under the umbrella of federal policies already hostile to noncitizens. Such cuts fit well with the narrative of immigrants as leeches: why give them benefits when people who really belong here are struggling? Vanessa Cajina of the California Immigrant Policy Center explains how these programs are a lifeline, not a free ride:

Many CAPI [Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants] clients are working through the immigration process to get their citizenship and qualify for Social Security, which is federally funded. In the meantime though, CAPI provides monthly cash assistance to low-income immigrants who rely on this small grant to pay their rent, food, and medical care…. About 22,000 immigrant Californians benefit from [the California Food Assistance Program], which keeps them from going hungry while investing in local merchants who sell their wares to these clients….

These cuts indeed hurt us all, and are reflected in homeless rates and in emergency room costs.

Undocumented, as opposed to lawfully present, immigrants are even more marginalized in the debate. Some California counties have cut them off from nonemergency medical care, seemingly unfazed by the possibility of generating worse, and costlier, health crises down the line. Even within the narrow rules governing federal access to benefits, evidence is mounting that many immigrants and their U.S. born children are shut out by bureaucratic obstacles. Contrary to stereotypes, the combination of immigration crackdowns and welfare reform has, as Columbia’s National Center for Children in Poverty put it:

exacerbated immigrants’ reluctance to turn to the government for assistance, compounding the impact of linguistic and cultural differences and racial and ethnic discrimination. Many immigrants fear that any contact with government officials could jeopardize their immigration status and/or lead to the discovery and deportation of undocumented family members.

The Government Accountability Office’s new report on sponsored immigrants (those who came to the country through a connection with, for example, a relative or spouse) indicates many immigrants who might qualify for public benefits could be deterred from applying by unclear policies, fear of interference with their sponsor’s legal status, and other hurdles. Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed cuts, which also gut school funding and public medical care, are pretty unpopular all around. But the loss of resources for immigrants is compounded by a longstanding, convoluted and unequal federal benefit system. The federal stimulus package promised an emergency boost for states, but it won’t fundamentally change the two-tired system that has locked out the country’s new arrivals, in good times and bad. Image: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times