AUSTIN, Texas - No more gaming the system; no more showing up and getting a handout the very next day. In his most recent weekly address President Donald Trump pledged to stop immigrant green card holders from accessing welfare upon their arrival by putting a five-year moratorium on public assistance.
There’s just one problem. Strict restrictions on welfare benefits, including the five-year wait time for immigrants have been in place for over 20 years.
How can you propose a policy change if that specific proposal is already public policy?
First, a little background on immigration and welfare benefits. In 1996 there was a major revamping of federally funded public aid eligibility. The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act dramatically curtailed public assistance. And within this major welfare reform there was a specific set of limitations targeted to legal immigrants, otherwise known as long-term permanent residents (LPRs) or green card holders.
Title IV of the 1996 welfare reform Act established broad limitations to access to federal welfare benefits. The main change was that any legal immigrant arriving after August 22, 1996 would be ineligible for the four major federal means-tested programs: the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Social Security, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Legal immigrants would be ineligible for five years after their arrival.
Then add to that to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. This major immigration overhaul made the obligations of the persons that sponsor immigrants (usually a family member) much more stringent: Sponsors would have to submit mandatory affidavits that they would be financially responsible for the immigrant. This was known as sponsor-to-alien deeming, a requirement that would further prevent immigrants at any point from having to turn to public assistance.
The reforms had immediate effects on public assistance usage. Close to 1 million non-citizens lost benefits right after implementation and between 1994-1999, legal immigrant families saw a 60 percent decline in cash assistance and 50 percent drop in food stamps. The effect of the 1996 welfare reform act on immigrants was significant and swift.
However, the 1996 welfare reform act together with subsequent amendments provided exceptions to the five-year ineligibility rule. For example, veterans, refugees, and children would be able to access public benefits prior to the five-year mark.
States were also able to step in to fill the gap. For example, a number of states provided state-funded food stamp programs for some legal immigrants ineligible for federal benefits. But again, these state-provided services were limited to a portion of legal immigrants.
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With this in mind, Trump’s recent remarks about cracking down on immigrant welfare abuse are puzzling:
"And just this week, we announced a historic immigration bill to create a merit-based green card system that ends the abuse of our welfare system … As an example, you cannot get welfare for five years when you come into our country. You cannot just come in like in past weeks, years, and decades. You come in immediately and start picking up welfare. For five years, you have to say you will not be asking or using our welfare systems,"Trump said in his address.
Sure, there are a couple of narrow exceptions to the provision of welfare services to legal immigrants. But the vast majority of legal immigrants would have to wait five years to be eligible. A legal permanent resident can apply for U.S. citizenship after five years in the country, three years if married to a U.S. citizen.
President Bill Clinton and the mid-1990s Republican Congress made this the law of the land. This isn’t a new policy.
Like the hair scrunchies and Seinfeld, the immigrant welfare reform that Trump was talking about was so 1990s.