Federal government’s open-door immigration policy on welfare under fire

Caroline May | Reporter

The federal government allows immigrants to enjoy America’s vast welfare safety net, from food stamps to housing benefits and Medicaid, and remain immune from repercussions to their immigration status. And on Monday, ranking Republican members of the Senate Finance, Agriculture, Budget, and Judiciary Committees wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanding to know why.

Immigration regulations prohibit individuals “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” from legal admittance into the United States. But non-citizens can avail themselves of dozens of welfare programs without the federal government considering them a dependency risk.

In government-speak, an individual likely to become reliant on the government for survival is termed a “public charge.” While there is a menu of over 80 federal welfare programs in America, that status is triggered by reliance on two federal programs: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act explains that immigrants are “inadmissible” to the United States if the U.S. Attorney General or any consular officer who interacts with them determines that he or she “is likely at any time to become a public charge.”

Despite immigration regulations that specifically state individuals may not be legally admitted if that determination is made, the real-world application of those regulations reveals a different story.

Acceptance of food stamps benefits, housing benefits, energy assistance, child care services, Medicaid and a wealth of other programs are all inadmissible in the determination of a non-citizen’s “public charge” risk, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“Non-cash or special-purpose cash benefits are generally supplemental in nature and do not make a person primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Therefore, past, current, or future receipt of these benefits do not impact a public charge determination,” Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) explain on its website.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley explained that applications are considered on a case-by-case basis, and that Homeland Security does not keep data on how many people are rejected because they may become  public charges. The agency also does not track whether or not individuals becomes public charges once they become U.S. residents.

Asked if Homeland Security follows up with resident aliens to determine if they have become public charges, Bentley replied, “Once they get their permanent residency, no, no. Once you become a permanent resident of the United States, you are a permanent resident of the United States until you do something for which you could be place into proceedings — immigration proceedings.

“And then if you become deportable — and that is usually based on a crime, a felony — then you lose your permanent residency. But other than that, the only way you would lose it would be if you [had] secured it through some means of fraud.”

According to Bentley, becoming a public charge is not reason enough to deport a permanent non-citizen resident.

“The reason behind that is those types of services — those types of social services — are things that people many times, through issues that are beyond their control, are forced, kind of, into that type of program, whether it be unemployment or anything of that nature. So, no that is not a grounds [for deportation],” he said.

In a 2011 report based on U.S. Census data, the Center for Immigration Studies — a self-described low-immigration, pro-immigrant research group — found that in 2009, 57 percent of households with children under 18 headed by a legal or illegal immigrant were receiving payments from at least one welfare program, compared to just 32 percent of native U.S. households with children.

In their letter Monday to Napolitano and Clinton, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley seek answers about why the federal government does not consider immigrants’ participation in a vast range of additional welfare programs a dependency risk.

“[U]nder your interpretation, an able-bodied immigrant of working age could receive the bulk of his or her income in the form of federal welfare and still not be deemed a ‘public charge,'” the senators wrote.

They placed specific emphasis on a nutrition assistance partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Mexican government, first reported by The Daily Caller last month, as a cause for concern.

At least one of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program brochures — containing advocacy messaging disseminated to Mexican consulates to distribute to Mexican nationals, migrant communities, and Mexican Americans — assures immigrants that their enrollment in that program will not be considered when their applications for visas or immigration status adjustments.

“[G]uidance from your agencies specifically prevents consular and DHS officials from considering the likelihood that an alien will receive SNAP benefits, WIC payments, Medicaid, child-care benefits, foster care, energy assistance, educational assistance, other medical and health benefits, and assistance from at least fifteen different nutritional welfare programs,” the senators wrote.

“This interpretation of the law, along with the actions of the USDA to recruit new immigrants to sign up for SNAP benefits, undermines both congressional intent and sound immigration policy,” they write.

In an interview with TheDC, an outraged Sen. Sessions did not mince words about the resident immigrants who have become public charges.

“We would like to know how many [there are], how big the problem is, how much it is costing the United States Treasury — because this is clearly a burden on the Treasury,” Sessions said.

“Now, during the debate on immigration, the constant theme has been that people entering the country are just trying to work and they are not drawing on the United States Treasury and the facts seem to indicate otherwise.”

The senators are demanding that DHS and the State Department provide answers to five questions no later than August 20.

Given the extraordinary implications for both our nation’s finances and the standards of U.S. citizenship, we ask that you provide information responsive to the following:

An explanation of why receipt of most welfare benefits is excluded from consideration of citizenship eligibility, and how this complies with the INA [Immigration and Nationalization Act] and congressional intent.

From 2001 to 2011, how many visa applicants and applicants for admission through the Visa Waiver Program were denied visas or admission because they were deemed likely to become a public charge?

From 2001 to 2011, how many visa applicants were found likely to become a public charge but were nevertheless granted a visa and admitted into the United States because they presented an affidavit of support?

How many aliens issued visas or otherwise admitted into the United States from 2001 to 2011 became public charges as defined by your agency after entering the United States?

If your answers to the above questions are that your agencies do not track this information, then please explain why this information is not tracked.

To Sessions, welfare runs counter to the principles of a sound immigration policy.

“I strongly believe that a fundamental principle of American immigration policy is that anyone who comes to America, anyone accepted to come to America is expected to be financially independent, not be dependent on government welfare programs,” he said. “If a person can’t sustain themselves then they shouldn’t be admitted.”

The Alabama senator added that between the open door policy on welfare and the active promotion of SNAP enrollment the country is facing a mountain of costs.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this situation along with others is the reason that food stamps have gone up four times in the last eleven years — the cost of food stamps has gone up four times in the last eleven years — and we have to confront this and bring this under control or it will eat us alive,” he said.

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