Immigration and Welfare: What’s a Civilized Nation To Do?


The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act

August 22, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law a welfare reform plan that not only changed things for the nation’s citizens, but also for the nation’s immigrants. Title IV of the bill contained the details on the provisions that affected “aliens”.

Title IV opens with the explanation that the basic principle of United States immigration law is self-sufficiency. With that in mind, it declares that aliens living in the U.S are to depend on their own capabilities, sponsors and private organizations to provide the resources for the needs of their families rather than depend on public resources. Despite these premises, the Act acknowledges the fact that aliens have been receiving public benefits at increasing rates. The legislation explains that this is due to inadequate eligibility standards that do not prevent aliens from enrollment in the public benefits system. One of the purposes of this legislation was to reform eligibility rules so that aliens comply with national immigration policy.

For their first five years in America “aliens” are prohibited from receiving any federal benefit. Exceptions to this are immigrants who: need emergency medical care; need short-term disaster relief; qualify for school lunch programs; qualify for Head Start programs; who need immunizations or treatment of a communicable disease; are granted asylum and refugee status; are permanent residents who have worked 40 qualifying quarters contributing to Social Security; are military veterans discharged honorably or are active duty military. Aliens who were receiving federal housing assistance up to the date the new law was enacted are exempt and can maintain their housing benefit.

So, what about immigrants who were currently receiving benefits and now were in a “disqualified” class? Is the government going to suddenly turn off the spigot and immigrant families scramble to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate a sudden loss of income support? Legislators laid out a plan for a transition period for these people. They would have a year to determine what benefit denial they qualified for and prepare for what this would mean for their home budget. Many of these programs required recipients to reapply for benefits on a yearly basis. At such time, disqualified “aliens” would simply be denied their benefit based on the parameters of this welfare reform bill.

Just what were the primary welfare programs this bill was concerned with? They were food stamps, Medicaid, and Social Security temporary assistance for the needy (SSI). The exempt programs, such as school lunch programs, were considered benefits that were “means” based. In order to qualify, not only was the immigrant’s income to be considered, but also the income of the immigrant’s sponsor. This was also required for an immigrant who attempted to qualify for State funded, rather than federally funded, benefits. If it was found that an immigrant had received a Federal or State benefit they would have actually been disqualified from receiving because of a sponsor’s financial means, the Federal and State government can now demand reimbursement from the sponsor.

The overall goal of this welfare reform was to move recipients from a welfare lifestyle to a working lifestyle over a five year period and permanently keep them self-sufficient. It also sought to remove from recipient status those who were on the dole and shouldn’t be, one such category being the immigrant. Was this goal achieved? Was this goal good for America? In 1994 the U.S. welfare system logged 14.4 million caseloads. Five years later, these caseloads had dropped to 5.3 million. The gringa thinks it’s safe to say, “Mission accomplished! Way to go President Bill Clinton! Umm, maybe.”

Why maybe? You see, many of these families were not actually completely self-sufficient. They simply moved from government generated income to the status of low-income. Single mothers especially were affected by this, becoming even poorer than when they were receiving benefits. As these families lost their Medicaid benefit by entering the workforce, they were often faced with employers who did not offer affordable health benefits. A worker supporting three people would not qualify for Medicaid if they earned more than $11,920 (for a family of three) annually. Now, the gringa would like to know who in their right minds thinks a family can afford health insurance and medical bills for three people if they make less than, say, about $70,000? Washington D.C. was way off base deciding this number was the qualifying poverty line.

Families that were accustomed to a housing benefit that kept their rent very low, were suddenly faced with paying full market rate for the roof over their head. That could mean, for a family that was earning $11,920.01, a penny above the qualifying poverty line, their rent could go from $200 to $700. You tell the gringa if you honestly think these poor, working class people could afford such a thing? Many could not. Remember, they also still had to pay their electricity bill. Sheesh. What was Congress thinking? The problem was not in the legislation itself. The problem was with what Congress thought the economic threshold of “poverty” should be. This presented the nation with a demographic that still was in dire need of public assistance.

So, although welfare was definitely reformed and got a lot of people off the government dole, a whole other problem was created. More families and disabled people simply became impoverished. Many of these people worked but did not earn a living wage. So, for the many anti-immigrant xenophobes out there who thought it was the immigrants who poured across the border and stole American jobs, the gringa will tell you to look at the numbers. From 1996 until 2001 it was not the immigrants filling these low paying positions. It was former welfare recipients, about 9 million to be exact.

So, if you want to measure success by the caseload numbers, yeah, Clinton achieved his goal. However, if you want to measure success by comparing quality of life before and after, it’s a different story altogether. Consider that most of these transitioned welfare recipients could not work full-time or year round, especially single moms. Many earned minimum wage or just a bit more. Either way, it was not enough to provide a decent standard of living for their families. Once you consider achieving a decent standard of living to be the measure for success, you can see the Clinton administration failed miserably. Although welfare enrollment declined, the numbers of the poverty class increased dramatically.

Consider that the poverty line as established by the government was $11,920 for a family of three. Consider the working single mom that may be making about $8 per hour and working only when her kids are in school because she can’t afford child care. Working eight hours daily, five days weekly, ten months annually (two months off for her kids school summer break), with no days off, she then brings home, on average, $12,000 annually. So, she makes too much to be considered in “poverty” in order to qualify for government benefits, but, you tell me, does she make anywhere near the $30,000 needed to afford the basic necessities for an adult and two children in 1996?

Out of 126 New York City “welfare to work” cases, the average person was earning $7.50 hourly and 58% were supporting their families with their work income. The gringa asks, “How in the hell did they manage?” Nationwide studies reported that most welfare recipients that entered the workplace earned well below poverty level. This was actually good news because they would qualify for means- based Federal and State benefit programs. However, there were plenty more that earned over the poverty level but nowhere near the $30,000 threshold that was the bare minimum for a small family’s basic necessities. Thus, this legislation created a large poverty class in America.

When you check the specific budget cuts, it is easy to see that most of the people affected were immigrants, elderly, disabled and single mothers. These are the nation’s most vulnerable classes of people. What this legislation meant is that poor people who were dependent on government programs to feed and house them and provide medical care actually became poorer, and possibly un-housed, underfed and without health care (unless they showed up at a hospital emergency room; which is exactly what happened, starting a new trend of packed ER’s, but that is fodder for another gringa story).

Social workers who are the ground zero, in the trenches workers and see the direct effect of these programs, criticized this reform. They claimed that by replacing the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, even if a family met all eligibility requirements, there was no assurance that children or parents would receive assistance. This was because oversight of the block grants was performed by individual states. States had their own requirements for eligibility. This meant that some states could deny aid to families with teenage parents or to families where both parents were present in the home, even if they met every Federal qualifier and regardless of their income level, if they had any income at all. Also, once the grant money ran out, states would place applicants on a waiting list for the next Federal funding period.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights had its own criticisms of the reform. They considered that within the welfare system was institutional racism and discrimination. They felt the legislation did not take into consideration the gender gap in wages. Rather than help women on welfare gain meaningful employment, the nation simply cracked down on eligibility requirements.  The government focus was on “work first” without doing anything to level the workforce playing field.

Many welfare recipients whose job and below poverty line wages qualified them for benefits would tolerate discriminatory practices in the workplace out of fear of dismissal and loss of benefits if they filed a complaint. Many immigrants were discriminated against with regard to case management and receiving benefits they qualified for because of language barriers.

To remedy these discriminatory practices, the USCCR recommended that Federal funds should be allocated for enforcement of civil rights among recipients, investigations of allegations of violations and to train caseworkers in how to better adhere to civil rights statutes. They further recommended better data collection on the people registering to qualify for benefits as well as the recipients and that all welfare agencies be subjected to audits with regard to civil rights grievances and compliance. The gringa understands this need but can’t help but think, “Dear God. It cost money to save money simply because some people can’t treat other people right.”

Specifically where immigrants were concerned, the USCCR was concerned with the law prohibiting immigrants from receiving any aid until they had been in the country for at least five years. The living conditions of many of these poor families continued to just get worse. Although, among some groups of people, the immigrant was a favorite target to accuse of entering the country just to live off the backs of taxpayers, this was actually a myth. Prior to 1996, statistics show that immigrant families were greatly outnumbered by citizen families in receiving benefits. This is because most immigrants come to the United States looking for jobs and opportunity, not handouts. As for immigrants that did qualify for aid, many would not accept it for fear of retribution.

The USCCR’s final recommendation regarding immigrants and the 1996 welfare reform was to immediately restore full benefits to immigrants regardless of when they entered the country and regardless of the financial resources of their sponsors. They further recommended that undocumented immigrants, for humanitarian reasons, should at least have access to health care, education and food stamps. To protect their civil rights, it was recommended that language assistance be provided for them throughout every step of the public assistance process.

Although these families may still struggle to feed, house and clothe their families, all is not doom and gloom. As mothers moved into the workforce, many children left in-home care and entered organized formal care. Studies resulted in surprising findings. Many of these children benefited from these environments with increased cognitive development, learning gains, and school readiness. These studies further suggested that the adolescents of these families were more likely to become employed later on when compared to adolescents in welfare dependent homes.

Now that the nuts and bolts of the legislation as well as its aftermath has been covered, the gringa asks, “Who REALLY benefited from this legislation?” The answer? Well, number one, the politician who was pandering to: a. voters with money and influence; and, b. corporations who contributed lots of money to campaigns. How so? Well, think about it. When the labor market is flooded with people looking for jobs, guess what, wages stay low! And that’s EXACTLY what happened, So, this piece of “social” reform was really a cheap labor package for the benefit of big corporations. Remember the economy boom during the Clinton years? Yeah, well, those growing businesses needed workers, and they wanted them as cheap as they could get ’em.

The reality is, if the government wants people to be self-sufficient, they must simply accept the fact that now, as in 1996, wages are too low for many families to escape poverty whether they work forty hours a week or even 60 hours a week. The gringa believes so much more could have been accomplished by simply raising minimum wage standards across the board to a living income level. Anyone who works forty hours weekly should make enough money to keep a roof over their head, feed and clothe themselves and afford healthcare.

For critics who argue that minimum wage jobs are simply entry level jobs for people to use temporarily and then move on to a better paying career level job, the gringa has got news for you. Welcome to the “New America” where 61% of young Americans have a college education, 44% of those college educated people are stuck in low income level jobs earning less than $25,000 annually and half of those have student debt of around $30,000 a year. Raising the minimum wage to a living standard level will not make these people rich, it will make them self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency was, after all, the true goal of this legislation. So, critics, the gringa says, “Quit pointing the finger and start lifting a hand to help these hard working Americans become self-sufficient. Join the cause to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour.”

Sources:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleystahl/2015/05/11/the-5-4-unemployment-rate-means-nothing-for-millennials/

https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/millennials_report.pdf

http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-104hr3734enr/pdf/BILLS-104hr3734enr.pdf

http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Personal_Responsibility_and_Work_Opportunity_Reconciliation_Act_of_1996.aspx

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/1996_Personal_Responsibility_and_Work_Opportunity_Reconciliation_Act

http://www.epi.org/publication/webfeatures_viewpoints_tanf_testimony/

https://www.socialworkers.org/advocacy/welfare/legislation/summary.pdf

http://www.usccr.gov/pubs/prwora/welfare.htm

https://www.facebook.com/Fightfor15?fref=photo

Photo credit: www.slideshare.net

1991 Armed Forces Immigration Adjustment Act


January 30, 1991, Senator Ted Kennedy sponsored a bill and President George Bush, Sr. thought it would be a great idea to sign it into law. This legislation was an amendment to current immigration law which would include reform specifically designed for military personnel. The new legislation provided special immigration status for military personnel who had served honorably for twelve years. This status was to include spouses and children. For non-citizen military personnel who had not yet served twelve years, if they had committed to re-enlistment to cover a twelve year span, they and their family would have their status adjusted to permanent resident until such time as they completed their duty requirements. Then they would be eligible for naturalization.

What the gringa doesn’t understand, is why do they not qualify for naturalization within five years like other immigrants? Why would any immigrant want to serve in the military if it meant they would have to serve twelve years before qualifying for citizenship? They could just remain a civilian immigrant, renewing their visa, staying employed or enrolled in school, and qualify in five years as a civilian. After the evidence of statistics and senior officer testimony in 1968 affirmed the quality of service provided by immigrant military personnel, why would the U.S. government do anything that would deter immigrants from enlisting? As the gringa scratched her head over this one, it took quite a bit of digging around to discover what this legislation was really all about. Once I did, it finally met with my approval.

The 1968 legislation only provided for expedited naturalization for military personnel involved in hostilities. The Vietnam War and Cambodian Civil War both ended in 1975. Although the U.S. was involved in many military operations around the world after 1975, the country was not involved in an actual war until August 2, 1990, when the Persian Gulf War officially began as Operation Desert Shield. There was a gap of time where many non-citizen military personnel did not qualify for expedited naturalization because they were not involved in hostilities during the time of their enlistment. This legislation was to remedy that fact and honor those service men and women with the citizenship status they deserved.

Provision was also made for 2,000 immigrants annually from countries the U.S. had treaties with (not including their spouses and children) and 100 annually from countries the U.S. did not have treaties with (not counting their spouses and children). This inclusion of immigrants from countries the United States may or may not have had treaties with was important because, at the time of this bill’s passage, the Gulf War was still going on, although its conclusion was in sight. In fact, it was actually less than a month away. There would be foreign nationals who had assisted U.S. efforts and it would not be safe for them to remain in their countries of origin. They and their families would need to flee to a place of safety. The gringa is proud of the United States for considering these humanitarian needs as well as remaining loyal to those who served in such a capacity. These special immigrants were considered refugees, given permanent resident status and provided with resettlement appropriations.

The scope of this immigration reform bill was narrow and specifically designed with the non-citizen soldier in mind. Tweaking immigration law in such a way as this reflects upon a government that is much more aware of what really needs to be done for immigration reform than they let on. Oftentimes the nation’s politicians throw up their hands and act as if immigration reform is so complicated they can’t possibly put together a bill the majority of legislators will agree on. That’s a big, fat lie. If they stick to simple, narrow measures, tweaking details here and there, they can, over time, get much done. A little bit of progress is better than none. The citizens of the nation have to put pressure on government leaders on behalf of the non-citizen who does not have any real influence as a non-registered voter. The citizens who care must speak for them and demand meaningful immigration reform.

Sources:

http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1991_armed_forces_immigration_adjustment_act.html

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/102/s296

https://www.congress.gov/bill/102nd-congress/senate-bill/296

http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/87576.pdf

Photo credit: http://www.slideshare.net

Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 – Proof Of U.S. Insanity?


As I researched materials for this week’s blog about the next chapter in United States immigration policies, the gringa found it difficult not to burst out in sarcastic laughter at the audacity of American legislators to entitle a piece of racist immigration policy a “Gentlemen’s Agreement”. I don’t find anything at all “gentlemanly” about the racism that permeated white American society toward the Japanese. The country had already kicked out the Chinese. I suppose it was only logical that the Japanese would soon be getting their eviction notices as well.

Although Theodore Roosevelt is generally thought of with affection and romanticized as a rough and tumble “man’s man” in our nation’s presidential histories, the truth is, he was just another racist president in a long line of racist presidents. Although we can thank him for our wonderful national parks system and for creating the Food and Drug Administration, I give him a big “up yours” for the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907. A “real” man would have stood up for what was right, which would have been to tell the bratty, white Americans to behave themselves, quit their temper tantrum throwing, be accountable for their own plight rather than play the blame-game and point fingers at the Japanese, treat their fellow human beings with dignity and respect regardless of race and skin color and to hell with re-election popularity for the party. I mean, in the barrio that’s how we mamacitas roll.

The years preceding this agreement the United States experienced a labor shortage. Probably because of their short-sighted, emotional, racist actions that resulted in expelling and banning Chinese immigrants whom they had originally imported for cheap labor. The solution to this new labor shortage was to import a new group of cheap labor. The United States turned to Japan. In 1895 the Anglo-Japanese Treaty was ratified by both nations and provided the framework for open immigration between the nations, as well as equal rights of residency and property ownership for immigrants of either nation. Japan became the new favored nation for the U.S., and we all know how well that turned out for China just twenty years earlier.

When Japanese immigration subsequently increased, California once again led the charge of social hostility toward a particular ethnic working class group. After San Francisco’s memorable earthquake of 1906, schools had to be rebuilt. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the racists of California that had revived their hatred of the Chinese and redirected it toward the Japanese, supported the decision by the San Francisco school board to segregate schools according to a specific Japanese/Caucasian line just as they had already done with the Chinese.

Such discriminatory actions struck a nerve when word traveled back to Japan. President Teddy made an effort to smooth things over with Japan. Now, don’t jump to any conclusions about President Roosevelt actually caring about the feelings of the Japanese. His desire for friendly relations with the Japanese had nothing to do with any form of admiration for their culture. The U.S., as usual, had only one interest, securing power and wealth for the nation.

At this time in history, the biggest threat to power and wealth for the United States was Russia. From 1850 until 1910 Russia was second only to America in population growth. After the terrible insult the United States had given the Chinese, China established broad and extensive trade relations with Russia. Russia was even allowed to build a naval base and sea port in the city of Vladivostok. Before the Treaty of Peking in 1860, the city of Vladivostok had been Chinese territory and was called Hǎishēnwǎi, which, translated, meant “Sea Cucumber Cliffs”. Things were warm and fuzzy between the Chinese and Russia in 1907. Understanding the true history behind the relationship of this political love triangle, I now am not so naïve as I once was when my nation’s propaganda machine goes into high gear depicting Russia and China’s alliance as a great threat to our nation. The gringa can only cock her head, squint her eyes, poke her finger at the White House, and say, “You started this big mess with your two-faced, racist, back-stabbing, behavior toward the Chinese!”

By 1907 Russia’s expansionist policies were evident to the rest of the world. It had also set its sights on Japan. Russia’s ally, China, had been engaged in hostilities with Japan for some time. In 1895 Japan achieved an important victory that led to Russia getting involved in the conflict. Ultimately President Roosevelt would negotiate mediation between all factions. The important result of all this and how it affected political consideration of the Japanese in the United States, is that the U.S. government recognized the strategic naval position Japan commanded in its geographical orientation with regard to China and Russia. America would be wise to have Japan as a friend. Strategic military interest, rather than racial respect, was Teddy’s motivation to smooth over Japan’s ruffled feathers at the nasty treatment Japanese immigrants were receiving at the hands of white America.

The result was direct intervention by President Roosevelt into the San Francisco school segregation actions. Promised by the President that he was going to deal with the Japanese issue, the San Francisco school board rescinded its segregation order. Soon after, the country saw this presidential promise fulfilled in the acceptance of the Gentlemen’s Agreement. This was not legislation but an informal agreement between the U.S. and Japan based on an exchange of diplomatic letters.

Despite the fact that no official record of the agreements was ever published, a wealth of historical evidence can still be found about how things changed in America for the Japanese that were here. In response to Roosevelt’s intervention of discrimination against Japanese on U.S. soil, Japan agreed to no longer issue passports to Japanese laborers who intended to seek work in the United States. Only Japanese professionals and Japanese business men could immigrate to the U.S. Japanese laborers already present in the U.S. would still be able to bring over their families, but single Japanese laborers that were here would not be able to look forward to new arrivals of lovely, single ladies from back home. However, one “loophole” in this agreement was that Hawaii, being a U.S. territory, could still accept Japanese labor immigrants. This resulted in the “picture bride” system of Japanese laborers in the U.S. getting a mail-order bride via Hawaii. Despite the best attempt of the Gentlemen’s Agreement to thin out the Japanese population in America, Japanese families still continued to grow and thrive. Hey, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do because everybody deserves a little lovin’ when they get home from a hard day’s work. At least that’s how my caveman feels.

As the gringa reads the historical documents recording this sad tale, the most disturbing aspect of it all, aside from the obvious, the racism, is the fact that the nation was repeating the events of just twenty years prior. I am reminded of the tongue in cheek definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Again, the gringa can only cock her head, squint her eyes, poke her finger at the White House and say, “What the hell were you thinking? Are you insane? Did you really think you could do the exact same thing that you did with China and it would somehow end better?”

Once again the United States has proven that it’s immigration policies are determined by greed and power. Borders are opened to an unsuspecting nation who is wooed like a predator stalking an unsuspecting victim. Cheap labor is imported. The country grows fat. The new immigrants start to get too big for their britches. The Caucasian hordes cry foul. The politicians want to secure re-election so they “burn the witch” as the angry masses demand. The only advice I can give any immigrant is, “Immigrant! Beware!”

Sources:

http://www.history.com/topics/gentlemens-agreement

http://www.americanforeignrelations.com/E-N/Extraterritoriality-Japan.html

http://countrystudies.us/russia/6.htm

http://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Peking

http://ir.library.osaka-u.ac.jp/dspace/bitstream/11094/9499/1/oulr056-001.pdf

http://www.britannica.com/event/Gentlemens-Agreement

http://immigrationinamerica.org/516-gentlemens-agreement.html

http://aapcgroup11.blogspot.com/2009/12/gentlemens-agreement-of-1907.html

http://encyclopedia.densho.org/Gentlemen’s_Agreement/

https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/ga1907

Photo credit:  www.dneiwert.blogspot.com