Sen. Bob Graham

(WOMENSENEWS)–In a dramatic departure from national efforts to reduce the number of people eligible for welfare benefits, the Senate Finance Committee voted last week in favor of a bill that would reinstate several types of aid to legal immigrants.

The committee voted 13 to 8 last Wednesday to pass the Work, Opportunity, and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002, which restores states’ rights to use federal funds to provide benefits to legal immigrants who arrived in the United States after 1996. The welfare law passed six years ago barred states from using money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grants for services to recent immigrants such as emergency cash supports, access to English-language classes, child care and transportation vouchers.

The 2002 act, which received bipartisan support in the Senate Finance Committee, also includes a provision that would restore health coverage for legal immigrant pregnant women and children who arrived in the country during the past six years. The 1996 law barred states from using federal funds to provide Medicaid and access to the Children’s Health Insurance Program to any immigrant who entered the country after August 22, 1996 until they had been in the United States for five years.

Advocates working on behalf of legal immigrants and immigrant women and children applauded the moves taken by the Senate Finance Committee, noting that they amounted to small but significant steps towards righting at least some of what they see as the wrongs made six years ago.

“This is all about making incremental progress since 1996,” said Shawn Fremstad, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Every year, we have gotten back some of the benefits that were taken away.”

States Step In to Compensate for Lost Immigrant Benefits

Several advocates explained that what they described as the 1996 law reflected the political and social climate of the time, in which people on welfare were characterized as lazy and parasitic. In response to that mood, the government tried to restructure welfare in such a way that people would be pushed into work. But the restructured welfare program took away many benefits from legal–and often working–immigrants that advocates feared that the 1996 law could be doing more harm than good.

“Immigrant workers are concentrated in low-wage jobs that don’t offer benefits,” said Adey Fisseha, a policy associate at the National Immigration Law Center, noting that more than 20 percent of low-income children are members of non-citizen families. “They need these supports.”

Advocates say that immigrants pay into the system and should be able to benefit in times of crisis. Due to the restrictions, they say, legal immigrants are paying more money into the system in income taxes than they are receiving in federal government assistance.

In the absence of federal assistance to help legal immigrants, some states have stepped in to cover this vulnerable population. California and New York have been lauded for their efforts to restore benefits for immigrants. But other states with large immigrant populations, such as Florida and Texas, have not, often due to a combination of economic problems and political opposition at the state level.

Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, spearheaded an effort within the finance committee to get members to adopt the amendment, which would allow states to use federal funds for the purpose of providing health coverage to pregnant immigrant women and immigrant children.

“It is in this nation’s interest to provide health care to legal immigrant children and pregnant women,” Graham said in a statement released after the bill was passed. “Right now, if states are not helping these legal immigrants, they are using the most costly and least effective method for health care: the emergency room at the county hospital.”

As a result of a cap Florida imposed on a program for helping legal immigrant children, 22,000 such children are currently on a waiting list to receive health care assistance, Graham said.

Another reason for supporting such a provision, advocates noted, is that the cost of covering immigrant pregnant women and children is relatively modest. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that broadening access to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program to cover 32,000 legal immigrant pregnant women and 144,000 immigrant children annually would cost $660 million over five years.

Spending on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program would not rise as a result of the amended legislation since the federal government provides funding for this program in the form of a block grant. Funding for the basic grants program is expected to total $16.5 billion per year.

Finance Committee Bill Permits States to Opt-In

While immigrant rights activists breathed a sigh of relief following the finance committee’s vote, they also said that there is still a lot of work to do to get benefits back up to pre-1996 levels.

Avis Jones-DeWeever, a study director for poverty and welfare programs at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, noted that the finance committee left it to the states to decide whether they would use the federal funds to help immigrants.

“Once again, it’s up to the states’ discretion as opposed to having TANF as a mandated provision to immigrants,” she said, referring to the federal welfare program.

The bill has several more rounds to go before a final vote this month and some of the provisions could be omitted in the final draft. The House of Representatives version does not include provisions permitting the states to use federal money for cash assistance to families or to provide immigrant women and children access to federally funded health care. A conference committee will have to reconcile any differences.

“It will be a wild ride now through the end of July,” Jones-DeWeever said.

Jennifer Friedlin is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Coalition on Human Needs:

National Immigration Law Center:

National Council of La Raza: