I believe that there are three basic options with regard to reforming the benefits eligibility system for lawful permanent resident aliens.
The first is to turn the matter over to the states.
The second is for Congress to categorically deny such benefits.
The third, unanimously adopted by the Congressionally-appointed bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform, is to make the affidavits of sponsors of immigrants enforceable for the period in which sponsor income has been deemed available to immigrants to keep them from becoming public charges.
If you turn the responsibility over to the states with the expectation that each will find its own policy, you may create a serous constitutional problem. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Richardson in 1971 that any state law that distinguishes between permanent resident aliens and citizens with respect to public assistance is in violation of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause. The Court ruled emphatically that it was impermissible for states to make welfare classifications based on legal alienage for fiscal reasons.
Possibly, the Congress can make constitutionally permissible what the states cannot do on their own, although that is not certain.
Whatever the constitutional disposition of such a case might be, it would, in my opinion, be bad policy for either the Congress or the states to make what the Court called an invidious distinction, one which it found to be subject to strict constitutional scrutiny.
Immigrants come to the United States as close relatives of citizens and resident aliens already here and because of their needed skills or other economic assets. If the numbers or categories are wrong, if they are not in our national interest, we should change them. The Commission on Immigration Reform is looking intensely at such questions now. But members of this bipartisan commission, including both strong conservatives and liberals, are unanimous in recommending against categorical distinctions between permanent resident aliens and citizens with regard to benefits under discussion here. To do so would be to cut at the heart of what makes the United States different from any other country in the world.
We correctly expect of legal immigrants that the vast majority of them will work hard, save, and invest in their children. Like citizens, they pay taxes and are subject to compulsory service in the armed forces. Many of them actually volunteer. We expect them to add to our language resources and help us to compete in a global economy. Their children provide us with a highly disproportionate number of valedictorians. And most legal permanent resident aliens are devoted to ideals of freedom, opportunity, and personal and family responsibility.
Well, some will say, "Let them become citizens." Not so easy! The average wait for an INS interview is now seven to ten months. In San Diego, an immigrant who applies for naturalization will be scheduled for an interview about 270 days later. Once approved, the wait to be naturalized varies greatly: ninety days in New York; more than a year in San Diego.
There are long waiting lists almost everywhere for adults to be admitted to English language classes. In New York, the waiting list is often as long as a year, sometimes two. The Riverside Church runs a lottery each month, and those who don't make it must sign up again for the following month.
About 5 percent of those who take the citizenship exam fail, but may never get that far because they are afraid to take it. That is especially true for older persons, many of whom are English language deficient. Persons over fifty-five can take the test in their native language, but they must have been in the U.S. for at least fifteen years.
In Chicago, we learned of a seventy-one-year-old Polish woman who broke down in sobs when she failed the citizenship test for the second time. For many elders, the humiliation of admitting that they may not remember or that they are suffering some impairment or disability is a huge obstacle to applying for and taking the exam. Do we want to say to this woman, if she should suddenly become disabled, that the public assistance is not for her because she is a legal immigrant? That was the situation of one of the plaintiffs in the Graham v. Richardson case.
Do we want to tell a twelve-year-old orphan that she must live on the streets because, as an immigrant, she does not qualify for the program of foster care and adoption assistance under Title IV of the Social Security Act? She'd be in a real Catch-22; she wouldn't qualify for help because she's a legal immigrant, but she can't naturalize because she is underage.
Do we really want to say to a legal immigrant woman who has been beaten by her husband that she must go to a shelter for battered women and be separated from her children because she is not eligible for AFDC, in whatever form it emerges? There are many instances of battered women, permanent resident aliens, who, with their children, were saved by being on AFDC temporarily, and who now are productive members of society.
Do we want to take SSI benefits away from legal immigrants, say a blind seventy-year-old man who collects no retirement benefits? More than three-fourths of elderly legal immigrants receiving SSI do not receive social security benefits, compared to one-third of elderly native-born recipients. We are not going to say to such persons: "Go back to where you came from."
There are other programs that would not be available to legal permanent residents under some of the legislation contemplated that I think you do not wish to eliminate. For example, you may have seen a story on Wednesday regarding this year's Westinghouse Science Prize winners, a hugely, disproportionate number of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The story featured one brilliant fifteen-year-old who, if he had finished just out of the running, would not be eligible for scholarship held under Title IV of the 1965 Higher Education Act. What a loss to the rest of us!
Just as we should be clear in our policy against any broad, categorical denial of public benefits to legal immigrants, so we should be clear that sponsors are to be held financially responsible for the immigrants they bring to this country during the deeming period.
The Commission on Immigration Reform has made several recommendations as to how to do this and is now working on refining them. Benefit eligibility is complicated by the many legal statuses afforded to individuals within this country. Thus, statutory categories should be specified regarding their eligibility for work and benefits. Such categories must include those not authorized to work and not eligible for the benefits we are discussing here. A bright line should be drawn between illegal immigrants and those we have admitted to participate in our communities and work places as a matter of national public policy.
In summary, I hope you will not rush into legislation you will almost certainly regret-legislation that could amount to a wounding, not just of immigrants, but also of their families, communities, and this beautiful nation of ours.