Immigration reform without public benefits

picAny viable immigration reform proposal in the United States senate has to pass through Florida Republican Marcio Rubio. That’s why it was big news when Rubio announced his support for a bipartisan plan on the Sunday news shows, stressing that the new program would establish a pathway to citizenship but offers very little to immigrants up front:

“I think it’s important to understand it does not give anything.  It allows people access to the legal immigration system… The only thing you are earning here is an opportunity to apply for temporary status, and ultimately, potentially to apply for a green card, the way everybody else does.”

What people do not get is access to public programs. No food stamps (SNAP), no Medicaid nor Medicare, no social security. This continues federal policy established under the 1996 welfare reform law, which restricted public benefits to citizens and lawful permanent residents. In practice, the Senate proposal means that people who are undocumented right now, could not receive any public benefits for over a decade (the likely amount of time required to meet all of the requirements established under the new law).

I have very mixed feelings about this as a matter of moral values and policy.

The “wait your turn in line” argument has a powerful sway on how Americans think about immigration policy: undocumented immigrants should not have the opportunity to jump to the front of the line because they defied border control or entered the country legally and overstayed their visas. As a matter of basic fairness, I can see the deep appeal of this argument.

The reality is not so clear-cut, however. Parts of the American labor market, including meat processing and agriculture, have operated for decades with large populations of undocumented immigrants. These industries could not exist in their current form without the presence of cheap labor, a fact that is known by both employers and immigration authorities. If society has been taking advantage of the labor of undocumented immigrants, the line jumping argument becomes less persuasive. With a whisper and a wink, undocumented immigrants have always been whisked into the line. The implicit message has been that Americans have been happy to accept the benefits of undocumented labor, but not accept any of the burdens.

The rewards of American society for undocumented immigrants have been modest at best. Beyond minimum wage or less compensation in the labor market, immigrants rarely receive pensions or other private benefits, nor do they qualify for public benefits. In fact, most undocumented immigrants do not intend to stay in the United States for a long period of time. As Doug Massey and Jorge Durand explain, however, the presence of long-term undocumented populations in the United States is partially the perverse consequence of tighter border security. Rather than risking apprehension on a future visit, would-be seasonal migrants have made the calculation that it is safer to stay in the United States.

As the undocumented adults have stayed longer, they have also had families. This is a big challenge in the debate over undocumented immigrants. Any policy that impacts adult undocumented immigrants also impacts their children, many of whom are citizens by virtue of their birth in the United States. Getting legal status for parents will have a huge and beneficial impact on bringing those families out of the shadows – giving them better access to public insurance and other programs (U.S. born Latino children remain the most likely to be uninsured demographics). But this is just a first step. If we want to improve the wellbeing for children of immigrants, we need to consider the needs of their parents too. This could mean making a tough choice to expand public benefits to undocumented immigrant adults in order to increase their health and nutrition, and by extension to help their children.

There is yet another dimension to the debate over public benefits for undocumented immigrants. Because Congress steadfastly refuses to expand federal health and welfare benefits for the undocumented, states and localities are left to pick up the burden. For example, the Affordable Care Act categorically restricts access to subsidies and public insurance to permanent legal residents and citizens. Public hospitals and clinics, largely supported by local communities, will be left to provide coverage for undocumented immigrants when they ultimately need medical care. This problem has become deeper because the ACA also cuts subsidies to safety net hospitals. Hospitals in areas with large undocumented populations will be in great financial danger unless the federal government provides supplemental funds to help those community hospitals survive.

It is quite possible that the ACA could never have passed with health care benefits for the undocumented, but t leaving immigrants out of public health benefits also creates severe political and social consequences. Randy Capps and Michael Fix describe some band-aid solutions to the problem in a recent article, including greater access to community clinics. This may be all that we can hope for within the current political climate, at least for now. In the long run, bringing more immigrants into the legalization tent could lay the foundation for expanded public benefits, especially as the argument that they have paid their fair share becomes harder and harder to deny.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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One Response to Immigration reform without public benefits

  1. An American says:

    Congress doesn’t only want to cut benefits programs for “illegals.” They want to abolish them completely for everyone. Except, of course, for “corporate welfare,” or the tax breaks that multinational conglomerates and Silicon Valley startups are allowed to take advantage of. Here’s a bit of irony: Facebook supports immigration reform… so that the rich, brat sociopath Zuckerberg, the “Revenge of the Nerds” version of Justin Bieber, can hire Middle Easterners with H1B visas to work as IT staff and pay them in “likes.” I believe there’s a pop music song that goes “it’s all about the money, money, money.”

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