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:

Immigrants and Sponsors:
Misunderstandings and Realities

"Immigrants, who were never supposed to receive public benefits, should turn to their sponsors — their families — for support."

—Rep. Lamar Smith, February 13, 19972*

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."

— Rep. Lamar Smith, February 13, 1997*

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.

End Notes

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.