Welfare concerns persist as Gang of 8 prepares to roll out immigration bill

As the so-called Gang of Eight negotiates and prepares to roll out a comprehensive immigration reform bill, members of the “gang” have not publicly addressed concerns that remain about policies surrounding law already on the books — specifically one relating to immigrant dependence on welfare.

Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits individuals likely to become primarily reliant on the government for survival:

“An alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible,” the section reads.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee has been sounding the alarm about the currently lax enforcement of the law and the potential for an immigration reform bill to overlook it.

“One of the biggest potential loopholes in the plan the Gang of Eight may produce concerns access to public benefits and welfare programs,” Sessions said in a statement to TheDC. “Nothing in the framework from the Gang of Eight appears to correct one of the most important areas of federal immigration law that has not been enforced: public charge law.”

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham’s office has chosen not to answer questions about whether the public charge statute would apply to undocumented immigrants granted legal status and an eventual green card (which would open access to a vast swath of welfare assistance programs) under a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

“Ignore,” Graham spokesman Kevin Bishop instructed another Graham staffer in an email, carbon copying The Daily Caller, when TheDC asked if the public charge statute would apply to undocumented immigrants after their probationary period and if the Gang of Eight was considering tightening enforcement of the law.

Bishop followed the email up with a response directly to TheDC.

“This question is premature before an immigration reform legislation is unveiled,” he wrote, going on to provide the same “premature” answer when asked about Graham’s position on enforcement of the public charge statute. “We haven’t negotiated immigration reform in the press thus far and don’t plan to start now.”

But the South Carolina senator has been voicing his hopes for the legislation in national news outlets.

“We’ve got to write the legislation, but 2013, I hope, will be the year that we pass bipartisan immigration reform, signed into law with three goals: to do the bill in such a fashion to prevent a third wave of illegal immigration from happening in this country, to make sure that the guest-worker program is available to employers who can’t find an American worker, once you offer the job at a competitive wage, and turn our chain migration family-based immigration system into a merit-based immigration system with a family component,” the South Carolina Senator, currently up for reelection said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Last August, Sessions and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch and Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts pressed Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-State Department Secretary Hillary Clinton on the policies surrounding public charge statute.

In their letters to Napolitano and Clinton, the GOP senators highlighted the fact that immigration officials may currently only consider potential reliance on Supplemental Security Insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in making a public charge finding.

“It has long been a sound principle of immigration law that those who seek citizenship in this country ought to be financially self-sufficient,” the senators wrote in their letter. “We were thus shocked to discover that both the State Department and DHS exclude reliance on almost all governmental welfare programs when evaluating whether an alien is likely to become a public charge.”

“Indeed, under 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,” they added.