INS Loopholes Lead Legal Immigrants to the World of Welfare

		  Sacramento Bee Op-Ed
		    December 14, 1994

		     Norman Matloff

Norman Matloff, a computer science profesor at UC Davis, writes on immigration matters and has been active in the Chinese-American community for 20 years.

Passage of Proposition 187, with its focus on illegal immigration, may force Congress to address some of the problems it's discovered involving legal immigrants as well. Last year, for example, the House Ways and Means Committee found that the family-reunification provisions in immigration law often do not work as intended, especially where welfare payments are concerned.

Reunification provisions allow a U.S. citizen to sponsor his or her parents, siblings and offspring for immigration to the United States. Parents generally can resettle here without restriction.

Consider the case of Tsai, a pseudonym. Tsai emigrated from Taiwan to the United States ostensibly to join her children. Yet the family did not actually reunify: Tsai lives in Sacramento, 400 miles from her closest child geographically, a son in Los Angeles. She sees the son once or twice a year and her other, out-of-state children even less often.

Tsai and her son are violating at least the spirit of another immigration law as well, because she is on welfare. As a condition for Tsai's immigration, her son signed an Immigration and Naturalization Service affidavit declaring his ability to support Tsai financially and promising that she "will not ever become a public charge." The son, a chemical engineer, had no trouble convincing INS that he could financially support his mother.

But the affidavit contains a loophole: It's binding on the son for only three years. At the end of that period, he put his mother on welfare and moved her out of his home into a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-subsidized apartment in Sacramento.

Most of Tsai's neighbors in that HUD building are from Taiwan. Most are on welfare. Most immigrated to the United States under the family-reunification law. And most did not reunify with their families.

Nationally, welfare use by elderly legal immigrants has soared by 400 percent in the last 10 years. The children reneging on pledges to support their parents tend to be upper-income professionals. Census data for California, for example, indicate that approximately 75 percent of the recipients' children have household incomes above the state median (even after adjusting for family size).

The Urban Institute, in a study conducted at the behest of the Clinton administration, reported this year that senior immigrants turn to welfare because they have not worked long enough to qualify for Social Security. But this does not explain the the wide variation among ethnic groups. For example, the census reveals that 55 percent of the Chinese seniors who immigrated to California from 1980 to 1987 were on welfare in 1990. That's nearly triple the 21 percent rate for senior Mexican immigrants.

The reason for this increased reliance on welfare is that for many immigrant groups, welfare in recent years has lost its stigma and has instead become a magnet, drawing them to the United States. As one Chinese senior in Oakland puts it, a common point of view is mh hou sit dai, Cantonese for "Don't miss this great opportunity."

Ruth Chu of the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles points out that organizations in Asia, such as the nonprofit International Social Service in Hong Kong, give detailed advice about welfare to those who are planning to emigrate to the United States. Edna Law, whose job at a Palo Alto Chinese community center includes helping immigrant seniors apply for welfare, marvels, "Sometimes I'm amazed -- the seniors know more than I do."

For many who immigrate under family-reunification laws, the primary goal is actually economic. Family connections merely provide a mechanism by which U.S. law will allow them to come here and pursue their economic goals.

Stanford University law Professor Bill Ong Hing, a prominent immigrant advocate, notes that Japanese Americans have sponsored their relatives to immigrate at much lower rates than have Americans of Filipino, Chinese, Korean and East Indian heritage. He cites Japan's strong economy as the most important factor behind this difference.

In Tsai's case, qualifying for welfare was her economic goal. Who can blame her for taking advantage of the system? Most of the immigrant seniors on welfare are decent people who probably do not consider that welfare is supposed to be used only as a safety net by the financially desperate. Yet it is unconscionable that Tsai's son, a well-off engineer, is allowed to renege on his promise to support her at the same time that poor people who were born in this country receive insufficient aid.

The Republican leadership and President Clinton have both proposed plans for lengthening immigrant welfare residency requirements from three to five years. But this would only postpone the problem for two years. Canada has opted for a more direct remedy: It recently reduced its yearly quota of family-reunification visas.

Congress would do well to reconsider America's own family reunification policy. Policy-makers need to ask whether immigrants such as Tsai should be given priority over other Taiwanese who may lack her American family connections, but who would not become fiscal burdens to the United States.