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U.S. welfare reform establishes caste policies

The Welfare Reform Act, which took effect late last year, has left many issues festering. Immigration-related policies top the list.

The question of whose benefits must be cut will not go away. Nor should it: It has much to do with our identity as a nation. Similarly, cutting welfare for immigrants has to do with the history and soul of our nation.

Under the new law, immigrants are no longer to be viewed as the latest guests to our table. These vulnerables will not be served the food shared by the rest of us. No matter that these immigrants are living in the country legally; no matter that they are usefully employed and paying taxes.

This welfare reform law, hailed as landmark legislation when it was signed by President Clinton last September, came at the expense of some of the weakest among us.

According to analysts at the National Immigration Law Center headquartered in Los Angeles, "The immigrant provisions of the welfare bill dramatically reduce access to government services for both legal and undocumented immigrants." The summary, written shortly after the legislation passed in August, continued: "For the first time, legal immigrants who have lived here for many years will not have equal access to the programs that their taxes fund.

"Immigrants were by far the biggest losers in the bill, singled out for more than 44 percent of the total federal budget cuts effected by the bill, even though they represent only about 5 percent of all welfare recipients."

Roberto Lovato directs the Central American Resource Center -- CARECEN -- in Los Angeles. He told NCR, "There are people who desperately need what little support welfare gives them." The percentage of immigrants who receive welfare is similar to the percentage in the U.S.-born population. The welfare reform act, he said, puts "the safety net at risk."

Elderly and disabled immigrants -- many no longer physically or mentally able to take the steps required to become U.S. citizens -- are an especially vulnerable group affected by the reforms. Analysts predict aged immigrants living on Supplemental Security Income in nursing homes will face uncertain futures. Without the checks, the homes will find it difficult to care for these patients. In addition, the broad reforms will simultaneously undermine the capacity of their families to provide for them.

The president, signing the welfare reform bill, said he recognized it was not fair and that it needed change. The harshness with which it deals with immigrants should be a top concern. There should be no question about benefits for legal immigrants and their families. We invited them into our house, and we should treat them well.

Meanwhile, the debate over the future of legal immigration revolves around numbers. At its core is the question of how many newcomers should be let into the country. But while there seemed to be bipartisan support for reducing legal immigration in line with the recommendations of an independent commission, efforts to legislate such cuts ran into stiff opposition, not just from ethnic and immigrants' rights lobbies but also from business.

The matter goes back at least to 1965 when the United States switched from a modest flow of mostly skilled immigrants coming proportionally from the countries where Americans had until then come from, to a broader flow of less skilled people and their extended families, many from the Third World, including restless, nearby Mexico. The debate is about whether the resulting mix is suitable.

The surge in legal immigration is attributed in large part to a decade-old amnesty law that legalized 2.6 million illegal aliens, many of whom have become citizens and sought permanent resident status for their family members. Unlike other immigrant categories, "immediate relatives" of U.S. citizens have no numerical visa allotments.

The recent influx has raised alarms in Congress over the long-term impact of immigration, particularly on the country's population growth. Lawmakers concerned about the high levels of immigration also complain about the more immediate social costs of the system and a loss of control over who is allowed to immigrate.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, legal immigration increased about 25 percent during fiscal 1996 over the previous year, meaning that about 900,000 people entered the country. When other categories of newcomers are factored in, such as asylum seekers and "parolees" granted special admission, the total approaches 1 million.

Historically, immigrants have played vital roles in re-energizing American life. They vitalized inner-city neighborhoods. They took jobs others would not take. They contributed to America's high-tech edge.

According to the Census Bureau, about one-third of U.S. population growth stems from immigration. When U.S.-born children of recent immigrants are included, immigration accounts for more than half the population growth, the bureau says.

The new Congress is expected to have its hands full with what some legislators say is the "unfinished business" of immigration reform. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., wants to restrict the ability of employers to use temporary foreign workers to replace Americans. Kennedy, a senior member of the Senate committee that deals with immigration, says he favors a "modest reduction" in legal immigration, but indicates he is most interested in obtaining additional Labor Department inspectors and cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers.

"The key question next year is whether we protect American workers or coddle the unscrupulous employers," Kennedy said.

If the overall number of those admitted is to be reduced, who should be cut? Current immigration law gives preference to family members, including married brothers and sisters. This creates a chain migration as in-laws of citizens, for example, become eligible to bring in their families, which in turn have in-laws who bring in theirs.

Some reformers have suggested eliminating this preference and the one for adult children, so that the spouses and children of permanent residents can be admitted more quickly. These proposals will have to be revisited and seriously considered in the months ahead.

Perhaps the most difficult question is whether to continue to emphasize family-related preferences to the detriment of highly skilled applicants who have no family living in the United States. Canada, for example, puts a premium on well-educated immigrants who can find employment easily and fill slots for which qualified Canadians are in short supply.

Whatever the eventual answers, the discussions surrounding them should be open and inclusive. All voices need to be heard. These matters affect us all.

Meanwhile, the welfare bill Clinton signed last year needs to be reconsidered. As discussions since then have shown, the administration will seek much less than full repeal. Pressure, however, needs to be exercised so that our nation does not slip into a two-tier benefits system that the welfare bill has established -- full benefits for citizens and scant few for new immigrants and legal aliens.

The powerful among us manage to protect their own interests. The largess of corporate welfare, for example, was never discussed during the budget cutting debates. Now, in the postelection year we must return to more reasoned discussions. The poorest and most vulnerable among us -- the newest arrivals to our nation -- need to be treated with the respect given the rest of us. Caste systems are not a U.S. tradition -- and must not be allowed to become one.

National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 1997