National Review, January 15, 2002
In Brideshead Revisited, the Protestant suitor of a Catholic girl undergoes instruction to convert to Catholicism, but is so gullible that he believes the girl's mischievous little sister when she tells him to ask his instructor about the "Sacred Monkeys of the Vatican."
It sometimes seems that this White House would happily embrace the Sacred Monkeys of the Vatican if someone told them it would help win Hispanic votes. From the multicultural show at the 2000 nominating convention to the unblinking support for amnesty for millions of illegal aliens (even after September 11), there is no measure too far-fetched for this administration to swallow in its frenetic pursuit of Hispanic votes.
Along these lines, President Bush recently announced that he wants to restore eligibility for food stamps to legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens. Cutting many legal immigrants off from public benefits, including food stamps, was part of the 1996 welfare-reform law, and accounted for close to half of the law's projected savings.
But even after the 1996 reforms, during an unusually strong expansion, figures from 2000 (before the current recession started) show that immigrants were still more likely to use welfare than native-born Americans. Looking just at food stamps, about 5 percent of households headed by a native-born person used the program, while about 7 percent of immigrant-headed households did. Even households headed by immigrants who arrived more than 20 years ago used food stamps at a higher rate than natives.
And the picture is even worse when it comes to immigrants' country of origin; though Asian immigrants generally have lower welfare-use rates, the top five Latin-American groups (Mexicans, Salvadorans, Dominicans, Cubans, and Colombians), which account for more than one-third of all immigrants, all are more likely to use food stamps than natives. Mexicans, the main target of the administration's immigrant focus, use food stamps at nearly twice the rate of native-born Americans and collect an average welfare payment that is 20 percent higher than those recipients.
The Hispanic who will vote Republican because of expanded welfare programs for immigrants is this administration's Sacred Monkey of the Vatican, a fantasy sold them by Hispanic consultants and leftist activists. The Democrats will always outbid the GOP, as we saw last year with amnesty for illegal aliens, which the White House wants to limit to Mexicans and Democrats offer to everyone.
But, putting aside the White House's political gullibility, we still need to decide what to do about heavy welfare use by immigrants.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the United States has always admitted foreign residents with the expectation that they would eventually become Americans, equal members in a republic of citizens rather than a helot class imported to serve the needs of native-born citizens. Given this model, it is perfectly appropriate to extend welfare eligibility to long-term legal immigrants who lack sponsors or whose sponsors are unable to fulfill their obligations. In this sense, the administration's pro-immigrant impulses are leading them in the right direction.
The problem arises when such a generous approach to immigrant policy (how we treat foreigners already living among us) is combined with an immigration policy that annually admits from abroad hundreds of thousands of people with little education who have great difficulty succeeding in the modern American economy. This combination — a pro-immigrant policy of mass immigration — is importing a vast new impoverished class, a development the effects of which will be felt for generations to come.
During the 1990s, the growth in immigrant-related poverty overwhelmingly accounted for the general increase in poverty in that decade, offsetting the reduction in the poor population from means-tested welfare payments.
Nor is this merely a matter of poor newcomers just getting started on upward mobility. Census data show that established immigrants (those who'd lived here between 10 and 20 years before the survey) have been getting progressively poorer since mass immigration was restarted in the 1960s.
Welfare reformers addressed this problem through immigrant-policy changes in 1996. The libertarian cry of "immigration si, welfare no" inspired Congress to preserve mass immigration but cut some immigrants off welfare. Despite subsequent rollbacks of the welfare ban, some utopians still cling to this formulation; Rep. Ron Paul, for instance, wrote in a recent newsletter that "meaningful immigration reform can only take place when we end the welfare state." Maybe this is possible in some alternate universe, but in the real world the welfare state is a permanent feature of modern society, however much it might be reformed and tightened up. And admitting poor people from abroad inevitably means they will make heavy use of whatever welfare programs we maintain.
In short, the problem of immigrants on welfare is not a problem of immigrant policy but of immigration policy, and can only be solved by reducing the number of low-skilled immigrants admitted to the United States. The White House proposal to restore food-stamp eligibility to legal immigrants only makes sense if it is coupled with significant, permanent cuts in new legal immigration — a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration. Otherwise, the proposal is just another step along the road to a poorer, more divided America governed by the Democratic party.