Households headed by immigrants (legal and illegal) use welfare at a significantly higher rate than households headed by native-born Americans. This was the finding of a recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Specifically, it found that 51 percent of all immigrant households use at least one public assistance program, compared with 30 percent of native households. Forty-nine percent of legal immigrant households receive welfare, as do 62 percent of those headed by illegal aliens.
Immigration advocates have tried to discredit this study, most notably those at the libertarian Cato Institute. They admit that the figures are accurate, but try to dispute their interpretation, for instance by claiming that the household model is inappropriate to measure the costs of immigration because some members of households are not immigrants, such as the U.S.-born children of household heads.
CIS replies that this claim is not valid for several reasons. One is that these children would not be here if it were not for immigration, thus their use of welfare should be counted as a cost of immigration. Furthermore, immigrant parents certainly benefit from the assistance that their children receive. CIS goes on to note that the household model, rather than individual analysis, is the one commonly used by researchers who seek to measure levels of public assistance. A case in point is a recent study on welfare usage by the Cato Institute itself.
Immigration advocates do concede that a substantial number of immigrants get welfare, but they try to soften concern about this liability by claiming that immigrants use less public assistance than poor Americans in the same income bracket. This is true, however, only for programs providing cash assistance and housing. It is not true for noncash programs such as SNAP (food stamps). Overall, poor immigrants use slightly more public assistance than poor American natives.
In any case, such comparisons distract from a much more significant question: why should the U.S. be hosting any people who are likely to qualify for public assistance? Indeed, our current immigration policy disproportionately imports poverty. One wonders why this is so when a leading and longstanding principle of our immigration law is that immigrants should not become “public charges,” i.e., people who need public support.
In theory this means that likely public charges should be denied entry, and immigrants who arrive and become public charges should be deported. Years ago these principles, to varying degrees, were upheld and enforced. But since the 1960s, they have ceased to have any meaningful effect.
In 1996, the rising tide of immigration – and immigrants using public assistance – prompted Congress to pass legislation to put teeth in public charge laws. Unfortunately, those laws proved to have little bite, as innumerable loopholes in them allowed immigrants to keep accessing welfare. Purely and simply we don’t have the political will to deport immigrants who become public charges. The only real solution is to keep them from coming in the first place, but that is difficult to do with lax border control and our current legal policy of stressing “family reunification,” rather than immigrants having a likely potential to support themselves.
So why can’t we change these policies? One reason is that welfare in America isn’t just for poor folks. The rich folks of corporate America want their share too – which welfare for immigrants provides. How does this work? The businesses lobby for immigration because they want cheap labor, but the low wages they pay aren’t enough for the immigrants to support themselves. What enables them to make ends meet with their low-wage jobs is the American welfare state. Thus, American taxpayers pick up the tab, and business reaps profits from low wages. Welfare for immigrants is corporate welfare too.
Ironically, libertarians like those at Cato hail mass immigration as a key component of free enterprise, but this enterprise is anything but free for taxpayers. Nor is it free for a great many working people, native and foreign-born alike, who suffer depressed wages.
An immigration policy that promotes public charges makes very little sense – and welfare for our profiteering wealthy makes even less.