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

Caroline May | Reporter

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.

Gang of Eight member Sen. Marco Rubio has said that newly legalized immigrants will not be eligible for public benefits during their probationary legal status, but the Gang of Eight broke along party lines in a Sessions budget amendment that would have prevented undocumented workers legalized under an immigration reform plan from obtaining Medicaid or Obamacare.

Republican “gang” members Sens. Marco Rubio, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake voted in favor of the amendment. The Democratic “gang” members Sens. Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer, Bob Menendez and Michael Bennet all voted against. The legislation failed in a 43-56 vote.

TheDC reached out to the offices of all the Gang of Eight members regarding possible enforcement of the public charge law in their upcoming proposal.

Seven of the eight failed to respond. Graham’s office pointed to Graham’s vote on the Session’s budget amendment.

“We have heard repeatedly that those on probationary status won’t be able to access certain public benefits. Even this promise is in doubt given the outcome of the vote on my amendment,” Sessions continued in his statement to TheDC. “But, assuming such restrictions are actually contained in the bill, they will only delay the substantial cost to taxpayers.”

Sessions estimated that once legalized undocumented immigrants move off their probationary status and become eligible for green cards, the cost of Medicaid and Obamacare will be $40 billion annually beginning in 2022.

“Hence the loophole: because the framework doesn’t apply a public charge standard to those illegal immigrants seeking some form of legal status (and ultimately citizenship), they will eventually be able to access welfare benefits and other public assistance programs at taxpayer expense,” Sessions explained.

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies a limited immigration group, told TheDC that he has doubts that welfare restrictions during the probationary period will include all welfare programs.

“There will be something in there that says they can’t use some programs, but it almost certainly will not include other programs even in the probationary period,” wrote in an email to TheDC. “Programs that will not be restricted, I bet, will be free/reduced school lunch and breakfast, Head Start, and WIC. Other programs that probably will not be restricted are the EITC [Earned Income Tax Credit] and ACTC [Additional Child Tax Credit]. Cash welfare will be restrict as will public/rent subsidized housing.”

Camarota further questioned the enforcement of such prohibitions.

“Now the other issue is enforcement, what will they do to bar the legalized from using the program. But remember, the US-born children will still be eligible for everything, states maybe given the option of covering the newly legalized and as I said some programs will almost certainly not be covered,” he explained.

While the Gang of Eight ignores the public charge question, Byron York at the Washington Examiner wrote last week that the lack of unity among the Gang of Eight on the Sessions budget amendment and the Obama administration’s “extraordinarily lax policy on benefits” could put “immigration reform in jeopardy,” echoing an assertion Sessions made after the Senate voted down his amendment.

“And even if comprehensive immigration reform becomes law, with tough benefits restrictions in place, a Democratic administration will shape how it is enforced,” York wrote. “Under almost any scenario, the benefits battle will last far beyond the current immigration debate.”

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