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Jewish World Review March 16, 1999 /28 Adar 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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How to keep anti-immigrant sentiments low

(JWR) ---- (
FOR A WHILE, it looked like Americans were ready to slam shut the Golden Door on immigration and penalize those immigrants who are already here.

Californians enacted a ban on welfare for illegal aliens and threatened to prevent their children from attending public schools in the state. Congress enacted strict limits on welfare benefits for legal aliens, and even President Clinton talked tough about better enforcement of the U.S. border with Mexico.

Lately though, few politicians -- other than Pat Buchanan -- bother to raise the issue. Why? Certainly a booming economy -- coupled with a severe labor shortage in some areas of the country -- has quieted the concerns that immigrants were costing Americans jobs.

But just as important, immigrants themselves responded to the anti-immigrant backlash by curbing behaviors that could exacerbate those sentiments. A new study from the Urban Institute illustrates the most striking example.

The study, by Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passell, looked at declining welfare rates among citizens and non-citizens following the welfare reform debate from 1994 to 1997. Much of the resentment of immigrants, especially illegal aliens, stemmed from the perception -- albeit incorrect -- that many of them take advantage of U.S. welfare programs. In 1994, Californians passed Proposition 187, which sought to outlaw benefits to illegal aliens, including public education. Although stymied in the courts, the measure nonetheless expressed widespread voter suspicion that many immigrants come to the United States not to work but to receive public assistance.

The Urban Institute study shows immigrants themselves are fighting hard to prove those suspicions wrong.

According to Fix and Passell, poor non-citizens are significantly less likely than poor U.S. citizens to be on welfare in the first place: 14.5 percent of non-citizens versus 18 percent of citizens who live in households that subsist on incomes below 200 percent of the official poverty level. But more importantly, since 1994 non-citizens have been leaving the welfare rolls in droves.

In fact, non-citizens accounted for a disproportionate share of the decline in overall welfare benefits between 1994. The decline in public benefits among non-citizens during this period -- 35 percent -- was more than twice the decline among citizens --14 percent. And these changes occurred even in those programs that were unaffected by the welfare reforms enacted in 1995 and among groups that continued to be eligible for benefits.

An earlier Urban Institute study of welfare in California found an even more impressive drop in welfare use by non-citizens in that state -- a 71 percent drop in Medi-Cal and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families among legal non-citizens compared to no decline in use of these programs among citizens. Ironically, the Urban Institute -- an old-fashioned liberal outfit -- warns that their studies demonstrate that the debate over welfare reform in the U.S. has had a "chilling effect" on welfare use among non-citizens.

Well, yes --- and rightly so. The United States has no obligation to take the poor of other nations if they cannot support themselves and their families by working here. Indeed, most immigrants come here wanting to work. And they largely succeed, as their labor force participation rates -- which are higher than those of the U.S.-born -- prove.

Welfare has often been associated with great shame by immigrants, most of whom come from countries without systems of public assistance. But, in recent years, as welfare programs both expanded and lost much of their former stigma, immigrants became increasingly likely to take advantage of the programs when times got hard and jobs disappeared. Unfortunately, this sometimes led to long-term dependence, which often sapped the very drive and ambition that led immigrants to come to the United States in the first place.

If the harsh rhetoric of the 1990s encouraged many immigrants who were receiving benefits to leave the welfare rolls, it could turn out to be a huge blessing in disguise --- not just for taxpayers, but for the immigrants themselves. Americans will continue to welcome immigrants only so long as they believe the newcomers will be productive members of this society.

Anything that discourages immigrants from becoming public wards will keep anti-immigrant sentiment low and America's Golden Door open.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate