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Immigrant Stories by Christopher Kerosky

‘The Immigrants on Welfare’ Myth

Aug 30, 2017
by Christopher Kerosky, Kerosky, Purves & Bogue, LLP, Sonoma County Human Rights Commissioner

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Last month, while introducing his proposed law to slash legal immigration, Donald Trump asserted that undocumented immigrants come to the U.S. and“immediately” get on welfare. This is yet another of the myths about immigrants and immigration so prevalent in our society and underlying much of the Trump Administration’s immigration agenda. Here are the facts:

• Due to federal legislation passed in the 1990s, undocumented immigrants and even most non-citizens legally here are severely restricted from obtaining public benefits.

• Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for any of the major federal public assistance programs, such as Supplementary Security Income (SSI),Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), Medicaid (including Obamacare) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

• Even immigrants who have permanent residence here (green cards) generally do not qualify for any of these programs until they have worked here for 5 years.

• In fact, to obtain a green card, you must have a sponsor who will testify, and provide proof, that he or she has enough money to support you, if you are unable to support yourself. Even if somehow you do obtain benefits, the government can seek reimbursement of those amounts from your sponsor.

• As the Cato Institute found, “low-income non-citizen adults and children generally have lower rates of public benefit use than native-born adults or citizen children whose parents are also citizens”

Generally speaking, immigrants come to work and to reunite with family members, not to get welfare and government assistance. Immigrant labor-force participation is consistently higher than native-born, and immigrant workers make up a larger share of the U.S. labor force (12.4%) than they do the U.S. population (11.5%). Moreover, studies consistently find that immigrants use proportionately fewer public services to the amount of taxes they pay, and stay in their jobs much longer than persons born here.

This has been my experience in my 25 years working with immigrants. Over and over again, Sonoma County business owners have come to my law office –farmers, winery owners, restauranteurs, construction contractors. They entreat me to find a way to legalize their Mexican-born employee because, they tell me, he or she is “the best worker I’ve ever had”. I’m told that American citizens often don’t want their jobs because it typically involves back-breaking labor in the fields, cleaning houses or offices, or other difficult work. (A future column will explain why, due to our broken immigration system, legalizing is usually impossible for the undocumented.)

There is no more inspiring people to work for than our immigrant community. Many of my clients have absolutely nothing going for them – they have no formal education, no family here, no savings, no inheritance, none of the benefits of citizenship. And yet, virtually all of them find a way to make a living and support their family. Our undocumented immigrants are generally the least “entitled” people in our society.     

Historically, it has been common for immigrants to our country to be “branded” as lazy or dependent on the government, without basis in fact. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, immigrants from European countries like Ireland, Italy and Poland were accused of “lacking the proper work ethic.” Similar false myths were used as a basis for race-based restrictions the U.S. imposed on immigration from Asia, Africa and Latin America in the mid-20th century. Even native Americans – the group with the longest relationship to this land – have been victims of these racial and ethnic slurs.

Now, many inside and outside the Trump Administration are reviving these claims -- arguing that our recent immigrants are abusing welfare and not paying taxes, essentially taking more than they give to our society. It is part of the greater narrative that immigrants are the cause of many of our national problems – unemployment and low wages, crime in the streets, and even terrorist attacks against our homeland. 

These claims have no more factual basis than similar “alternative facts” that our ancestors faced 100 years ago.

Christopher Kerosky is a member of the Human Rights Commission for Sonoma County. He is an attorney who practices law in Santa Rosa.

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