In 1996, the “Welfare Reform Act” changed the way that governmental financial assistance is distributed, and in doing so, it had a profound impact on immigrants. There were many changes in this act but I’d like to address one in particular: the five year bar. This policy means that immigrants who were granted permanent residence could not, after this act, receive public assistance until they could prove a continuous residence of five years in this country.
The public assistance that was once given to permanent residents but was restricted after the Act included Medicaid and food stamps. Furthermore, benefits such as cash assistance for poor families, or assistance for the blind, the disabled and the elderly are still restricted to permanent residents until they become citizens.
A few things are terribly wrong with this 5-year residency requirement.
- Immigrants pay taxes that help fund those programs, just like citizens do. Collectively, immigrants contribute $50 billion a year more in taxes than they receive in government assistance. Because documented immigrants are required to pay the same taxes as citizens, there should be nothing disqualifying them from receiving the same public benefits that citizens receive.
- Documented immigrants collectively contribute far more to the government than a low-income sub-group of them would receive in subsidies. So from a financial perspective, barring documented immigrants from receiving public assistance makes no sense either.
- From a humanitarian perspective, it is incongruent with American values to deny services to those in need, especially because this country has been forged on the shoulders of immigrants, and on the ideal that the American Dream is the dream that any hard-working person can aspire to.
The 5-year bar on documented immigrants poses a great burden for vulnerable immigrants, particularly for women. It was recently found that women are “out-migrating” men worldwide and that that many of them are heads of their household. These findings are part of the conclusion that New America Media, a coalition of over 2,500 ethnic news organizations, reached in one of their recent surveys.
The five year bar is unfair, inhumane and incongruent with American values and should be lifted immediately in order to move forward as a nation that will be more egalitarian and that has a high regard for the dignity of all its residents.
By Carolina Rizzo, DC Policy Intern