The sweeping Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 contains a whopping 671 sections, with provisions amending everything from land-border inspections to the salaries of immigration judges. One of the law’s more controversial aspects has proved to be its drastic cuts in all forms of public assistance for immigrants (some of which were later reinstated).
In the wake of both IIRIRA and welfare reform, most legal permanent residents were denied Medicaid, food stamps and SSI disability benefits — no matter how long they’d been legally working and paying taxes, just like their American-born counterparts. Subsequent legislation restored SSI benefits and Medicaid eligibility to some of the immigrant groups. And last summer, Congress gave states the authority to restore food stamps to most immigrants who had been legal permanent residents for at least five years. To date, though, only about 13 states have done so, and North Carolina is not one of them, though pending legislation may restore benefits to certain immigrant groups.
Most legal immigrants remain barred from receiving any form of federal public assistance for their first five years of legal residency in the United States. And legal permanent residents must accrue 40 quarters of steady employment in America (about 10 years’ worth) before they can qualify for disability benefits.
Ironically, notes attorney Jane Oakes, most illegal immigrants are paying taxes, even though they’re now denied any benefits. Anyone, she says, can readily get a taxpayer ID number from the government.
Proponents of the cuts in public assistance to immigrants argue that a disproportionate number of immigrants end up receiving such benefits, at some point during their lifetimes.
But statistics on this issue vary widely. A survey conducted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (which supports stricter immigration laws) reports that immigrant households are far more likely to use benefit programs than the households of American-born citizens — 47 percent more likely, according to FAIR’s survey. Various other statistics, however — including those compiled by the National Immigration Law Center (a Washington, D.C.-based immigrant-advocacy organization) — show little difference in the two groups’ use of such benefits.