April 14, 1997
Why Can't All
Immigrants Be Cared For By Sponsors?
by Jennifer Daskal and David Super
In justifying the cuts targeted at immigrants in last year's welfare bill, many have argued that immigrants should rely on their sponsors not the government for support. Yet, throughout the 1990s, over 300,000 immigrants have been legally admitted to the United States each year without sponsors. And others may have sponsors who have died or become impoverished themselves.
Sponsored immigrants, totaling about 450,000 each year, come to the United States under the category of family reunification programs, designed to unite separated families. Yet, having a sponsor is not a guarantee of assistance. Until April of this year, sponsors were under no legal obligation to support the immigrants that they sponsored. Even now, it is unclear whether the support of a sponsor is enforceable as a practical matter. And sponsors can die or become impoverished.
Legal immigrants who enter the United States under provisions of law other than family reunification generally do not have sponsors. In addition, under the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (IRCA), almost three million resident aliens were granted legal permanent residents. None of those granted legal status under IRCA have sponsors.1
Often they have no relationships to U.S. citizens and have no one to turn to in time of need.
Examples of immigrants without sponsors include:
Asylees: Refugees are admitted based on a
well-founded fear of persecution. They often arrive with
nothing but the clothes on their back and usually lack
friends or relatives in the United States. Asylees, like
refugees, are granted legal permanent resident status
based on fear of persecution. Unlike refugees, asylees
are already in the United States when they apply for
legal status many having fled their home country
in an effort to save their lives. Throughout the 1990s,
the United States has admitted approximately 90,000
refugees and 10,000 asylees annually. Due to their
adverse circumstances, refugees and asylees have tended
to use public assistance more heavily than other
Last year's welfare law exempted refugees, asylees, and those granted a withholding of deportation from the ban on SSI, Food Stamps, and Medicaid for five years. Although refugees and asylees are eligible to naturalize after five years they may not begin the application process until after four years and nine months, and it takes INS an average of nine months to process naturalization applications, with the waiting time much longer in some cities. Refugees and asylees will be ineligible for SSI and food stamps during most or all of the period in which their applications are being processed. The many refugees and asylees who are unable to naturalize due to language constraints or physical and mental impairments will be among those who lose benefits after their fifth year in the United States.
Immigrants and Sponsors:
"Immigrants, who were never supposed to receive public benefits, should turn to their sponsors their families for support."
In fact, only 44 percent of immigrants granted legal permanent status between 1987 and 1995 have sponsors. The other 56 percent, such as refugees and asylees fleeing persecution, workers filling employment needs, and long-term residents granted amnesty under the 1987 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) do not have sponsors to turn to for support.
The number of immigrants without sponsors has been particularly high over the last ten years due to IRCA, which granted legal status to almost 3 million alien residents, none of whom had sponsors. Approximately two-thirds of non-IRCA immigrants admitted over the last ten years have sponsors.
"America is getting tough on deadbeat parents who refuse to pay child support. That same standard should apply to deadbeat sponsors."
This is an erroneous analogy. The federal and state government spent over $3 billion to collect child support payments in 1995. By contrast, no agency has been set up to ensure that sponsors care for immigrants and help them meet their needs. Sponsorship agreements entered into before April 1997 were not legally binding.
Furthermore, child support laws punish the negligent actor the parent who does not make the required payments to support his or her children. In contrast, last year's welfare law targets the person neglected by their sponsor, not the "dead beat" sponsor who fails to meet his or her obligation. It is the immigrants, not the sponsors, who are punished by being denied SSI, food stamps, and, in some cases, Medicaid when sponsors are unable or unwilling to provide for them adequately. When parents die or become unemployed children are still eligible for aid; in contrast, under last year's welfare law many immigrants are banned from federal means-tested entitlement programs, irrespective of their sponsors' well-being.
* Testimony before the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives. February 13, 1997.
Employment-based immigrants: Under the 1990 immigration law, up to 140,000 immigrants can be admitted each year based on offers of employment. Some of these have sponsors, but many do not. Under last year's welfare law, an employment-based immigrant who suffers a disabling accident and loses his or her job after a number of years of working and paying taxes will be ineligible for SSI disability benefits, unless this immigrant has accumulated 40 quarters of work. This immigrant has no sponsor to turn to for support.
Immigrants on Diversity Visas: Each year, the United States admits 55,000 immigrants from countries previously underrepresented due to immigration quotas. Given the small number of diversity visas provided each year, getting a diversity visa is like winning a lottery. Immigrants with close relatives in the United States would likely have applied to enter under family reunification programs since those programs offer a much higher probability of gaining entry.
Amnesty Aliens: Under the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act (IRCA) Congress granted almost 3 million aliens living in the United States legal permanent status. None of these immigrants had sponsors. Although a recent study by USDA shows that IRCA immigrants are less likely to receive food stamps than average citizens, those that suffer temporary spells in unemployment or face unforeseeable disabling injury are not eligible for food stamps or SSI under last year's law.
Others: Other categories of legal immigrants include those granted temporary protected status, a withholding or suspension of deportation, and deferred enforced departure, such as Chinese citizens during the time of Tiananmen Square. Many, who know no one in the United States, have fled persecution in their country of origin.
1. Even though Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regulations issued on March 19, 1997 waived the civics test for certain severely disabled immigrants (complementing an existing exception with regard to the English language requirement), all immigrants applying for citizenship are still required to take the oath of allegiance. The new regulation only benefits the narrow group of immigrants too disabled to take the written test but not so disabled that they can not take and understand the oath. Those with serious impairments will remain unable to meet the citizenship requirements.
2. An increasing number of employment-based immigrants are required to have sponsors in the future.