United States Commission on Immigration Reform

Testimony of Susan Martin
Executive Director, U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform
Before the U.S. Senate
Committee on the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Immigration
February 6th, 1996


On behalf of the Members of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.

First, I would like to say a brief word about our Chair, the late Professor Barbara Jordan. Professor Jordan accepted appointment as Chair because she believed that debate about immigration policy and reform of its problem areas were necessary if we were to retain our strong tradition as a nation of immigrants committed to the rule of law. I know that she was very proud of the work of the Commission and grateful to the members of this Subcommittee, in particular, for the support you have given the Commission, as well as for the many courtesies you showed her as Chair. We hope that the rest of the Commission's work in fulfilling the mandate of the 1990 Act, with a series of interim reports before the final report on September 30, 1997, will live up to the high standard she has set for us.

The Commission is pleased that this Committee continues to examine the eligibility of immigrants for public benefits, with particular attention to the Supplementary Security Income program. The Commission strongly recommends that legal immigrants continue to retain eligibility for the safety net provided by needs-tested public programs, but further recommends a tightening of provisions to ensure that immigrants do not become public charges.

That immigrant utilization of SSI is growing is confirmed by administrative data. Rather than go into detail on the data itself, which I do in my written testimony and which others have done today, let me briefly note the Commission's recommendations along with their reasoning.

The Commission believes the following principles should guide policy on benefits eligibility for SSI.

Legal Immigrants

First: The safety net provided by needs-tested programs should be available to those whom we affirmatively have accepted as legal immigrants into our communities. The U.S. admits immigrants on the basis that they will not be a public charge. However, circumstances may arise after an immigrant's entry that create a pressing need for public help--unexpected illness, injuries sustained due to a serious accident, loss of employment, a death in the family. Under such circumstances, legal immigrants should be eligible for public benefits if they meet other eligibility criteria. We are not prepared to remove the safety net from under individuals who, we hope, will become full members of our polity.

A policy that categorically denies legal immigrants access to such safety nets based solely on alienage would lead to gross inequities between very similar individuals and undermine our immigration goals to reunite families and to integrate immigrants into American society quickly. For example, posit a family whose income is below poverty level with two children, one a legal immigrant who becomes disabled after entry, the other a healthy U.S. citizen born after the family immigrated. Under proposals to deny benefits to legal immigrants, the disabled child would be ineligible for assistance, while the healthy U.S. citizen child would be eligible for assistance if the family met income requirements.

The inequities for the legal immigrant child grow if eligibility is linked to citizenship, rather than a specified time, as the child by law may not naturalize until he or she is eighteen years of age. The only route to citizenship prior to that age is through the naturalization of his or her parent. If there were a categorical denial of eligibility to all legal immigrants and the parent was unable or unwilling to naturalize, the child would suffer the consequences of a parental action that he or she could not remedy.

Second: Sponsors should be held financially responsible for the immigrants whom they bring to this country. In particular, the Commission recommends making affidavits of support signed by sponsors legally binding for a specific period of time and the development of mechanisms to enforce sponsors' pledges of financial responsibility.

Affidavits of support are one means to ensure the Consular Officer that the alien will be supported in the United States and will not become a public charge. In accordance with Board of Immigration Appeals [BIA] rulings, the signatory sponsor's ability to provide the promised support must be given due consideration in determining whether to exclude a person as likely to become a public charge. Some courts, however, have held that such affidavits of support impose only a moral--and not a legal--obligation on the signatory sponsor.

It is important to note that the affidavit of support becomes a condition of entry only when the Consular Officer finds that the intending immigrant is likely to become a public charge. In other words, if the sponsor did not promise to provide support, the immigrant would not be allowed to enter the United States. We believe this promise should have greater force in law to ensure that the responsibilities are upheld.

The affidavit should ensure that parents who are unable to work enough quarters to become eligible for Social Security or Medicare do not become a burden to taxpayers through use of SSI, Medicaid, or equivalent state and local assistance. Further, the Commission recommends that affidavit signers (petitioners and, if necessary, coguarantors) should provide:

Requiring such a commitment from sponsors should not be confused with a bar on eligibility for the immigrant before or after naturalization. As I stated, the Commission recommends against categorical denial of eligibility on the basis of alienage. Legal immigrants and citizens should be treated alike as far as their eligibility is concerned. If a sponsor is no longer able to provide support, the needy immigrant should have recourse to public benefits. If the sponsor abandons his or her responsibility, the needy immigrant should have recourse to public benefits. All efforts should be made, however, to enforce the sponsor's legal responsibility to repay the public coffers and resume support as quickly as possible.

The distinction between eligibility and financial responsibility is an important one that affects not only immigrants but citizens as well. For example, a U.S. citizen child may be eligible to receive public benefits if he or she meets income criteria, but the child's eligibility does not dissolve his or her parent from the financial responsibility to provide support to the child. Similarly, a U.S. citizen spouse retains eligibility for benefits, but that does not absolve his or her spouse from financial responsibilities.

The equivalent relationship in immigration policy is the affidavit of support signed by sponsors of new immigrants. Just as a parent's responsibility for a child is irrespective of the child's citizenship, the sponsor's responsibility for a parent whose entry is conditioned on a contractual arrangement specified in the affidavit is irrespective of future naturalization.

The Commission further recommends that entry be contingent on verifiable assurance of the purchase of health insurance, again for the lifetime of the parent or until the parent becomes eligible for Medicare on the basis of his or her work history. Without such a health insurance requirement, parents are likely to access taxpayer-financed health programs such as Medicaid or general assistance. We recognize that such a requirement may be prohibitively expensive for many families, particularly if the parent is over the age of sixty-five. The current private health care market generally lacks affordable health plans covering doctor, hospital, and long-term care services for elderly individuals. Moreover, most private long-term care policies are limited in both duration and extent of coverage. Therefore, we recommend that the government establish an option that would allow sponsored parents age sixty-five or older to purchase Medicare (parts A and B) at an actuarially fair price, which we understand would be about $4,000 to $5,000 per year. On top of that, the parent or sponsor also would have to show purchase of a long-term care policy that would offset some or all of the costs that might otherwise accrue to Medicaid.

The Commission does not intend a legally binding affidavit of support to be a punitive measure towards either the sponsor who attempts to meet the requirements in good faith or the immigrant who may be financially abandoned by the sponsor. If the sponsor becomes financially incapable of providing support because of changed circumstances (the sponsor's illness or accident, for example), the requirements of the affidavit would be removed until the sponsor was able to resume them. If the immigrant is abandoned, however, the legally-binding affidavit permits the immigrant to obtain help while the efforts are made to enforce the sponsor's responsibility.

This recommendation permits the continued entry of parents because it would assure that they would not be excludable as public charges who pose a burden to U.S. taxpayers. It also protects sponsored spouses and children by enforcing affidavits signed on their behalf and ensuring that assistance is available to them if the sponsoring parent or spouse is unable or unwilling to provide support. Finally, it protects the taxpayer. As Professor Jordan said in a speech last summer:

"[E]ven nuclear family reunification is not without obligations on the part of those who benefit from immigration. The Commission believes that those who sponsor new immigrants have responsibility for ensuring that their relatives do not become a burden on taxpayers. You and I should not have to pay for someone else's family reunification."
Developing effective enforcement mechanisms related to the affidavit is critical to the success of this recommendation in order to avoid creating any future incentives to abuse or defraud the system. A number of options may be appropriate, including a role for the Department of Justice in investigating alleged abdications of responsibility that lead to use of public benefits. Federal, state, and local programs providing cash and medical assistance could be required to report to the Department of Justice the receipt of benefits by any sponsored immigrant. This approach would establish affidavit enforcement activities within the primary law enforcement agency and avoid placing additional enforcement burdens on health and social service programs. Alternatively, the enforcement could be undertaken by the Department of Health and Human Services or the Social Security Administration. In any case, communication among these agencies would be essential.

Third: Abuse of the public charge provision should be grounds for deportation. A serious effort should be made to enhance and enforce the public charge provisions in immigration law to ensure that legal immigrants do not require public assistance and to provide clear procedures for deporting individuals who become public charges within five years after entry for reasons that existed prior to entry. In particular, the Commission recommends that deportation apply to sustained use of public benefits.

Specific provisions within U.S. immigration law are designed to ensure that those persons seeking admission to this country will contribute to it, not merely take advantage of its resources and the generosity of its people. For example U.S. immigration law currently bars the entry of those who are likely to be public charges and contains provision for the deportation of individuals who become public charges within five years--unless they require aid for reasons that developed after entry. Effective enforcement of these provisions helps minimize the number of legal immigrants who need or depend on public assistance.

Refugees

Let me conclude with a few words about refugees and their eligibility for SSI. The Commission currently is undertaking a full examination of the domestic assistance program for refugees resettled in the United States. My remarks here are more personal, based on fifteen years of work on refugee issues, rather than on behalf of the Commission. The high rate of welfare dependency has been a concern to all of us who have interest in maintaining a strong U.S. commitment to refugee admissions. Certainly, many refugees become economically self-sufficient and important contributors to our economy and broader society. However, a significant proportion of refugees continue to receive public assistance many years after their entry. Some refugees clearly need significant levels and periods of assistance. It is unreasonable to assume that an elderly, seriously traumatized refugee will become self-supporting. Barring that person from eligibility for SSI after a specified period undermines the humanitarian nature of our original decision to admit him or her. But, many more refugees are dependent on public programs, including SSI, than can be explained by the presence of this relatively small number of seriously disabled victims of persecution.

Welfare reform provides an opportunity to revisit the refugee assistance program. So, too, does the expected change in the number and composition of refugee admissions once resettlement has wound down in the two major, Cold War-related programs for admission of refugees from the former Soviet Union and Southeast Asia. I hope that the Congress will give the Commission time to finish our investigation and consultations with the Executive Branch, private resettlement agencies, state governments, and others before adopting changes in SSI or AFDC policy that could have significant ramifications for refugee resettlement.

I will be glad to answer any questions.


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