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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Overstates Impact of Immigration Bill

President Donald Trump is wrong on two fronts when he claims that the RAISE Act “prevents … new immigrants from collecting welfare.”

“They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare. That doesn’t happen under the RAISE Act,” Trump said of the immigration bill he recently endorsed.

First, current federal law already bars most new immigrants from most federal public assistance programs for five years, so it’s misleading to suggest all immigrants can now “immediately go and collect welfare.”

Secondly, there are exceptions to the current law, such as for children and pregnant women. The legislation would tighten the eligibility requirements for some new immigrants, but many would remain eligible for public assistance under the proposed bill. So he’s also wrong when he says the RAISE Act “prevents … new immigrants from collecting welfare.”

Trump’s comments came in a press conference to announce the introduction of the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act, which was proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue. The bill seeks to halve legal immigration into the U.S. by reducing the number who gain entry based on family ties, capping the yearly number of refugees admitted and emphasizing a “merit-based” immigration system.

Trump also said the bill would curb access to welfare programs.

Trump, Aug. 2: The RAISE Act prevents new migrants and new immigrants from collecting welfare, and protects U.S. workers from being displaced. And that’s a very big thing. They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare. That doesn’t happen under the RAISE Act. They can’t do that.

Current law already bars new immigrants from accessing federal means-tested public benefits for five years. That would include such benefits as food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security. But as we said, there are some exceptions in the law — including for children and pregnant women, refugees, and active duty military or veterans.

Children of new immigrants, in particular, contribute to higher rates of public assistance use.

So what would the RAISE Act do to “prevent” new immigrants from immediately accessing public assistance? Very little, according to immigration experts.

Cotton’s press office told us the proposed law would make two main changes on this front. First, among those admitted through a skills-based points system, not only the new immigrants, but “every member of the household of such alien, shall not be eligible for any Federal means-tested public benefit” for five years. (See page 24 of the proposed bill.) That would include the children of new skills-based immigrants, said Caroline Rabbitt, a spokeswoman for Cotton.

Notably, that provision applies only to those who immigrate legally to the U.S. through the skills-based program, which will prioritize applicants based on factors such as education level, English language proficiency and job skills. Those applicants are, and would remain, a minority of the overall legal immigrant population.

Each year, approximately 140,000 skills-based immigrants are admitted to that U.S. That’s out of more than 1 million legal immigrants admitted overall this year. The majority of legal immigrants are family-based applicants (others include refugees and diversity applicants). The RAISE Act is expected to halve legal immigration by limiting family-based immigration to minor children and spouses, leaving out siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. It also would cap the president’s authority to accept refugees at 50,000 per year. (Nearly 85,000 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in fiscal 2016 under the Obama administration.)

The overall number of new immigrants accepted under the RAISE Act would drop to about a half a million, but about the same number — 140,000 — would come through the skills-based merit process, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute. So the provision that extends a prohibition on welfare benefits to entire households of skills-based immigrants would affect less than a third of applicants in the future, if the bill were to become law.

The RAISE Act also would require sponsors of green card holders to reimburse the federal government for any public benefits used by those immigrants before they can become naturalized U.S. citizens. Cotton’s office says this provision “provides an additional incentive for all green card holders to stay off welfare and/or have their sponsors reimburse the federal government for any welfare they used, as is required under current law.”

Although current law requires sponsors to reimburse the federal government for any welfare used by new immigrants, experts told us that requirement is rarely enforced. The new wrinkle is that reimbursements would be tied to naturalization, which experts said could add some teeth to the provision. But overall, they said, the changes in the RAISE Act would not do much to prevent those currently eligible for public assistance from still being eligible.

Cotton’s office, as well as White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller at a press conference, referred to a 2015 study by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) that concluded that in 2012, “51 percent of households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) reported that they used at least one welfare program during the year, compared to 30 percent of native households.”

Miller, Aug. 2: At the same time, it has cost taxpayers enormously because roughly half of immigrant head of households in the United States receive some type of welfare benefit — which I know is a fact that many people might consider astonishing, but it’s not surprising when you have an immigration system that doesn’t look at questions like skill level or self-sufficiency.

That CIS total includes a broad definition of welfare to include households that access the Women, Infants and Children’s program (WIC) — which is a food and  nutrition program for pregnant women, new moms and children under the age of 5 — as well as the free or reduced school lunch program. Neither the current law nor the proposed RAISE Act would limit eligibility for those programs.

The author of that CIS study, Steven Camarota, said that the RAISE Act over time would reduce welfare use among immigrants. That’s because it would reduce family-based immigrants, while keeping the skills-based program at its current level. The skills-based program generally rewards immigrants with higher levels of education, who are in turn less likely to access public assistance, Camarota said. He believes that’s a better way of reducing welfare use among new immigrants, rather than trying to deny welfare benefits to needy immigrants who are already here.

The president should have stuck to that message, Camarota said. Instead, the president’s comments suggest the bill would immediately and fully eliminate the use of welfare by new immigrants.

“There’s not much in the bill that would do that,” Camarota said.

Although the bill would deny federal assistance to households headed by immigrants who enter the U.S. based on merit, those applicants are a minority of new immigrants and they are more highly educated — therefore less likely to access welfare, he said.

The exemptions in the current law that allow some children, pregnant mothers and refugees to access federal public assistance would remain for those who legally immigrate to the U.S. via a program other than the skills-based merit system.

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2017-08-03 23:21:07 UTC

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“The RAISE Act prevents new migrants and new immigrants from collecting welfare … They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare. That doesn’t happen under the RAISE Act. They can’t do that.”
Donald Trump
President of the United States

White House
Wednesday, August 2, 2017