Byron York
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Did you know that U.S. law forbids the admission of any immigrant who is likely to depend on public assistance? It's right there in Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, first passed in the 1950s and still the law today:

"Any alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible."

The plain language of the law hardly squares with reports that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has sought to promote the use of food stamps and other welfare programs among newly arrived immigrants. (Legal ones; the law forbids those benefits for illegal immigrants.) In 2004, in the Bush years, the feds even began a partnership with the Mexican government to encourage Mexicans to sign up for government assistance as soon as they arrived in the U.S.

And now, the Obama administration forbids American consular officers from even considering whether a prospective immigrant might end up on dozens of public assistance programs when evaluating that immigrant's admissibility to the U.S. The policy came as a surprise to four top Republican senators when they learned about it last year.

"It has long been a sound principle of immigration law that those who seek citizenship in this country ought to be financially self-sufficient," Sens. Jeff Sessions, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley and Pat Roberts wrote in an August 2012 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "We were thus shocked to discover that both the State Department and DHS exclude reliance on almost all governmental welfare programs when evaluating whether an alien is likely to become a public charge."

Specifically, the senators were stunned to discover that while government policy allows an American official to consider whether a prospective immigrant might end up on Supplemental Security Income, or on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the official cannot weigh whether the immigrant would need more than 70 other means-tested programs: Medicaid, food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, child care benefits, educational assistance and more than a dozen nutritional programs.

"Indeed, under your interpretation," the senators wrote in that letter to Napolitano and Clinton, "an able-bodied immigrant of working age could receive the bulk of his or her income in the form of federal welfare and still not be deemed a 'public charge.'"

Controversial in its own right, the question of government benefits for noncitizen immigrants has come up again in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. In the early hours of Saturday, March 23, during the so-called vote-a-rama on amendments to the budget, the Senate rejected, by a vote of 56-43, a measure that would have denied access to Medicaid and, in coming years, to subsidies under Obamacare, for immigrants who came to the United States illegally but would be legalized through immigration reform.

The vote was almost entirely along party lines; Democrats voted against the amendment, and Republicans voted for it.

Sessions, an opponent of the so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan outline for reform, touted the vote as a milestone. "The Senate Democrat majority voted to extend free and subsidized health care -- specifically, Medicaid and Obamacare -- to illegal immigrants who could be granted legal status under any comprehensive immigration bill," he said. "The result of [this] vote places immigration reform in jeopardy."

That remains to be seen. But it is true that every Democrat on the Gang of Eight -- Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet -- voted against the amendment, while the Republican members of the Gang -- Marco Rubio, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake -- voted for it.

Republicans in the Gang, especially Rubio, have repeatedly insisted that newly legalized immigrants will not be eligible for federal benefits under their comprehensive immigration reform proposal, and there's no reason to think they don't mean what they say. But the Democratic majority's vote on the Sessions amendment, plus the Obama administration's extraordinarily lax policy on benefits, suggests Democrats have very different ideas on the subject.

That could indeed place immigration reform in jeopardy. And even if comprehensive immigration reform becomes law with tough benefits restrictions in place, a Democratic administration will shape how it is enforced. Under almost any scenario, the benefits battle will last far beyond the current immigration debate.

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Byron York

Byron York, chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner