Last Wednesday, at an Iowa rally reminiscent of his freewheeling campaign stops, President Trump floated more anti-immigrant restrictions before the crowd. “Those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years,” Trump told his audience. Trump dutifully read this supposed potential policy off a teleprompter until he got to his whopping finish, which was cut off by roaring applause from the crowd.
The only problem? It’s already the law.
As it is, with only very narrow exceptions, immigrants already must wait for a period of five years before they can access federal public benefits like Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (formerly known as food stamps), cash assistance, and Social Security benefits. Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for these benefits.
The 1996 welfare-reform law signed by President Bill Clinton is what restricted access to benefits for many immigrants. Lawful immigrants and refugees and asylees who entered the United States prior to August 22, 1996, generally were eligible for this suite of benefits. But after the passage of welfare reform, those who entered after that key date were barred from accessing federal public benefits for at least five and sometimes seven years. In subsequent years narrow exceptions were made so that children and those on disability could receive food stamps, and states were also given discretion to sort out how they wanted to handle eligibility for programs like Medicaid and cash assistance.
“I’m not sure what he’s doing,” says Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney who specializes in health-care and public-benefits eligibility at the National Immigration Law Center. “We already have policies place, severe restrictions that prevent immigrants from accessing these services for at least five years.”
As it is, immigrants use public benefits like Medicaid, SNAP and cash assistance at a lower rate than low-income native-born Americans. Of the more than 40 million immigrants in the country, more than a quarter of native and naturalized American citizens use Medicaid, while only a quarter of noncitizens do, according to the Cato Institute’s 2013 analysis. Low-income noncitizen children are the least likely to receive Medicaid, largely because of the 1996 welfare-reform law which limited their access. Similar uneven rates of usage exist across other federal aid programs.
What’s more, undocumented immigrants who are barred from accessing these programs actually support them. In a 2013 review, the Social Security Administration’s actuary estimated that undocumented immigrants pay some $13 billion into the nation’s retirement fund every year, while they received only about $1 billion in return. Millions of undocumented immigrants, many who’ve lived here for decades and who want to be prepared to show their good-faith contributions to the country, do pay taxes. Without immigration reform enabling them to change their status, they won’t reap the benefits of their labor.