What Services Should Immigrants Get?

What are immigrants in the United States entitled to? Tax breaks? Health care? Disability insurance? Food stamps? As the Senate Judiciary Committee wades through a major immigration bill, it is clear that there is no consensus, even among the bill’s sponsors, about how to treat the immigrants who would become legal residents under the legislation.

Two Republican members of the “Gang of Eight” that wrote the bill—Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina—voted Monday for an amendment that would deny all immigrants who do not have green cards access to the Earned Income Tax Credit. In other words, they supported denying a popular poverty-related tax break to the millions of unauthorized immigrants who would receive legal status under their bill, including so-called “dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as children. Two “gang” Democrats—Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chuck Schumer of New York—voted against the proposal.

The committee rejected the tax-credit amendment on an 8-10 party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against. But its sponsor, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., has a host of other initiatives up his sleeve that will touch off a difficult conversation about what people who migrate to this country should expect in terms of government services and benefits.

“I think that people that came to the country illegally, in violation of the law—they lived without these benefits. And therefore I do think it’s appropriate for the nation to say, if you choose to stay here, you’re not going to get benefits until you’ve become a citizen,” Sessions told National Journal Daily during a break in the committee’s deliberations on Monday.

Sessions has filed a variety of amendments that would deny legal status to immigrants who would be eligible for food stamps, children’s health insurance, Social Security supplemental income benefits, or health insurance premium tax credits under President Obama’s health care law. One or two of those amendments will likely surface Tuesday as the committee takes up the bill’s provisional-legalization program. Expect more to come during floor debate.

The Republican-Democrat split on Sessions’ tax-credit amendment illustrates a fundamental tension about immigration policy. For roughly 100 years, immigration law has dictated that foreigners who are likely to become “public charges”—meaning primarily dependent on the government—cannot be legally admitted into the United States. This country welcomes immigrants, but only as long as they don’t become a drain on the government. The problem is that it’s awfully tricky to decide exactly what that means.

In committee, Sessions said the immigration ban on public charges is not being followed. “Less than two-tenths of 1 percent are being turned down as a result of their low projected income,” he said. “They should not be allowed to immigrate to the United States if they are going to be a charge on the public. They should be able to support themselves without government assistance.”

Liberal-leaning immigration and human-rights groups worry that arguments like this could undermine what they see as the whole point of immigration-reform legislation: to bring undocumented people “out of the shadows” so the government can better understand who’s here, and regulate who comes and goes in the future. These advocates know they have fairly solid support in the Judiciary Committee but flimsier backing in the full Senate. When the immigration bill goes to the floor, fending off proposals to deny welfare-type benefits to newly legalized immigrants will be harder.

Advocates are anxiously waiting for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to release estimates of how many undocumented people will come forward under the bill and what kinds of services they are expected to use. CBO will also estimate how much tax revenue the newly legalized population will generate. Taken together, the numbers will dictate how much leeway lawmakers have in terms of offering benefits to new immigrants. The more restrictions, the more difficult it gets to regulate who gets what. Fewer restrictions mean smoother transitions and easier assimilation—but harder politics.

“People are curious about the CBO score when that will come. We can’t pretend that isn’t real,” said Carrie Fitzgerald, senior director of health policy at the children’s advocacy group First Focus. “But people get it—the idea that people should be covered. It’s cheaper to cover people rather than to pay emergency care.”

The rockier the path to citizenship, the harder it will be to convince unauthorized immigrants to come forward, said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza. “It’s like the death of a thousand cuts—you can’t have access to this, you can’t have access to that,” she said. “If there is not a majority of people who get in to the program, what’s the point?”

To many Republicans, the point is to keep gifts to the undocumented population—people who did break the law—to a minimum.

“The economy is completely different, which raises a whole new set of questions,” said Dan Holler, communications director for Heritage Action, the political wing of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. “How do the people who will have legal status almost immediately—how do they impact the job market?”

This article appears in the May 21, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as No Consensus on What Immigrants Get.

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