Legal immigrants in limbo

While the Supreme Court avoids the issue of their rights, Bush and Gore have broached the subject -- but with great caution.

Published March 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the welfare reform bill in 1996 -- amid sluggish economic times and a sea of anti-immigrant sentiment -- they eliminated food stamp and health benefits to thousands of legal immigrants.

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a case brought by the city of Chicago, which argued such an exclusion was unconstitutional. But the court's unwillingness to enter the fray has not ended the political wrangling over the issue, one both Al Gore and George W. Bush have danced around, each in their own way.

Gore has long trumpeted the Clinton party line, vowing since the time the bill was signed in August 1996 to fight to restore benefits for legal immigrants. But while the vice president argued that cutting benefits to legal immigrants should not have been a part of the original welfare legislation, he, like Clinton, endorsed the bill as a whole.

Since then, the administration has endorsed piecemeal restoration of some benefits, but stopped short of calling for a full restoration of the health care and food stamp benefits that were eliminated.

In 1998, access to roughly $818 million in food stamps was restored to some immigrants who were in the country legally before the welfare bill was signed, on Aug. 22, 1996. This 1998 measure signed by Clinton also restored food stamps for children under 18, and for people who had turned 65 before the Aug. 22 cutoff.

In the president's new budget, there is some money earmarked for further restorations. But there are also competing proposals -- one by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., and another by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. The president's new proposals would allow people to "age in" to the program, allowing them to collect food stamps if they turn 65 after August 1996. Clinton's proposal would also cover parents in households where children are eligible for benefits.

"It doesn't cover everybody, and doesn't get us past that arbitrary August '96 cutoff," said Ellen Vollinger, an advocate for the nonpartisan Food Research and Action Center in Washington. "But it's given us reason to think that there may be some progress on restoration this year."

The president has also earmarked $500 million to restore health benefits for legal immigrant children and pregnant women, a plan expected to cover roughly 150,000 kids and 50,000 pregnant women. The Moynihan-Levin bill by contrast has a $3 billion price tag over five years, according to sources in Moynihan's office.

"It's a matter of basic fairness to give legal immigrants who pay taxes like everyone else the same safety net all of us depend on," Levin told Salon. "Every day that we wait to correct this problem, children go hungry and people are denied basic health care."

The original cuts in the 1996 bill were attached to the welfare reform plan at a time when immigrants were being blamed by some people for the nation's economic problems. Pat Buchanan rode his anti-immigrant rhetoric to victory in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. Two years earlier, California Gov. Pete Wilson piggybacked on hostility toward immigrants to win reelection.

While anti-immigrant fervor swept through states like California, Bush refused to scapegoat immigrants for his state's economic ills. But while Bush did not support policies backed by Wilson that restricted benefits to illegal immigrants, his policies toward legal immigrants were similar to Wilson's. Like Wilson, Bush claimed that welfare benefits for legal immigrants should be paid for by the federal government, though he, like Wilson, did agree to pick up some of the feds' slack.

After 1996, welfare reform was turned over to the states. In California, the state continues to cover many of the immigrants who were cut off in '96 and were not picked up again by the 1998 bill. In Texas, a small state-funded program was created to cover some portions of the legal immigrant population cut off by the original 1996 bill, but most of those were subsequently covered in 1998's federal legislation.

The fight to restore benefits to immigrants, many of whom are Hispanic, has been among the top legislative priorities for many Latino lawmakers across the country both at the state and federal levels. Now, in their efforts to rehabilitate the party's image and court the Hispanic vote, some Hispanic groups have played an important role in getting Republicans on board supporting the kinds of benefits many of them typically oppose.

The National Council of La Raza, for example, was instrumental in convincing former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain to support some additional benefit restorations, according to Senate sources. The impact of the cuts on the conservative Cuban exile committee has prompted many Florida Republicans to back many of the efforts to reinstate some or all of the programs cut in 1996.

Now, as Bush makes Latino outreach a cornerstone of his campaign, he continues to walk a tightrope in regards to benefits for immigrants. "I think it's very fair to say that the governor's office has been eager to never take a position that's overtly opposed to immigrants, but they've also not supported proactive initiatives to help the policy," said Anne Dunkelberg, senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas.

The center's nutrition-policy analyst, Celia Hagert, said that in 1999 there was a push to cover an additional 7,300 legal immigrants who were not picked up by the 1998 federal legislation. That bill would have covered children and seniors currently living in Texas who arrived after the August 1996 cutoff date, and to lower the senior eligibility age from 65 to 60. That measure never got out of the Legislature after clearing some preliminary votes.

"Had we gotten more support from the governor's office, it probably would have passed," said Hagert. "His office indicated to us that he would not support that bill."

Although Hagert says there is no way of knowing how many formerly eligible immigrants are now uncovered, there were approximately 168,000 receiving food stamps before the welfare act passed in 1996. Now, there are only 52,000 currently getting benefits in Texas, though a booming economy may have eliminated some of the demand.

Though Bush has not supported many of the center's initiatives, Dunkelberg did give the governor partial credit for instituting the state-funded program in 1997. "One of the first things to remember about Texas is that we're one of those states that doesn't have any state funded [welfare] programs," she said.

But now that the federal government has made welfare the charge of the states, Dunkelberg said next year's legislative session will be pivotal in determining the future of welfare in Texas. "One of the things the welfare reform act did was tell states that pre-August '96 and post-August '96 immigrants get treated completely differently. The question is what kind of benefits we are going to provide after the five-year time limit is up. Are you going to provide these benefits after that five-year bar is up. Nobody is up until 2001."

"We just got around to enacting a new children's health insurance program, and as part of that package, we included a provision to pick up any of those kids who arrived after August '96. We asked the governor's office to support the bill, but they politely declined."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore George W. Bush Immigration