Yuri Petrov (not his real name) immigrated to America from the Soviet Union ten years ago. Now Yuri wants his mother to move to America, but there is one problem. His mother doesn’t want to leave her life and the rest of her family behind in Russia. Tired of sending money every month to Moscow for his mother’s support, Yuri needs to promote the idea that life would be better for his mother here in the United States. Consider the inducements he can offer his mother to immigrate. First, there is the $440 monthly payment called a “pension” in the Russian-speaking immigrant community. This is better known as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the indigent elderly and the disabled. Yuri’s mother would be eligible for SSI 30 days after arrival. Between 1983 and 1993, usage of SSI by elderly United States citizens actually declined by 25 percent while the number of noncitizen immigrants receiving SSI quadrupled. Yuri’s mother could live with her son and keep this entitlement even though her son’s family income exceeds $100,000, or, as mother and son prefer, she could set up housekeeping on her own in a public housing project where nearly all the residents are recent arrivals from the former Soviet Union. There she could get Food Stamps and receive subsidized meals prepared under federal senior nutrition programs. As one staffer at a federally funded agency to help the new arrivals explains, “We plead family reunification in order to immigrate, but promptly split up on arrival to increase the benefits stream.” Once established in America, mother can return for visits with her other children at the family dacha outside Moscow for six months each year without losing her entitlement to benefits in the United States.
If this isn’t enough, Yuri hopes the promise of practically free lifetime medical care will clinch the deal. Medicaid alone carries an $8,000 annual value on average for the elderly, and by some reports the usage of Medicaid is much higher than average among immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Two physicians scandalized the immigrant community by going public in the Russian-language press about Medicaid and Medicare fraud in the community. According to them, the United States government is paying for a lot of nonexistent home oxygen machines and wheelchairs in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn (a Soviet-American colony). In a series of articles entitled “How Our Immigrants Rob Medicare and Medicaid,” the physicians claim that “tons” of medicine obtained fraudulently through Medicaid and Medicare circulate on the black market in Moscow. The physicians, who treat the emigre community, report that their average Medicaid/Medicare patient generates not the usual $4,000 to $8,000 in charges to the government, but more than $35,000 each year. Creative uses of Medicaid services have given rise to comical regulations. For instance, when auditors realized Medicaid was paying for shopping trips to Brighton Beach in ambulettes, a decree went out forbidding the transport of clients with shopping bags in the publicly supported vehicles. An ambulette ride from Queens to a “clinic” in neighboring Brooklyn generates a bill to Medicaid of $47. According to New York City documents cited by the physicians, former Soviets own about half of the ambulette services in Brooklyn. Yuri’s mother, like most of the new arrivals, would not knowingly engage in outright fraud, but abuse of the system is not an isolated problem. As one of the physicians states: “Any pensioner in Brighton Beach would be glad to show how to get all you could ever need using your Medicare or Medicaid card.”
Were the House Republican welfare reform bill to pass today, very little of this benefit analysis would change. For Yuri is considered a refugee by United States law, and his mother would be joining him as a refugee. Refugees are exempt from the cuts proposed in welfare for other immigrants. That exemption remains in effect for refugees for six years after arrival, that is, until they become eligible for citizenship. Upon naturalization, eligibility for benefits continues on the same basis as it would for any American citizen. None of the welfare programs noted above are subject to a usage limit. Senior nutrition programs are not even means-tested and will remain that way under the proposed changes. (When Donald Trump turns 65, he can get Meals on Wheels if he wishes.) AFDC, the program on which legislators are determined to show their resolve, is about one-ninth the cost of the various welfare programs “Yuri’s mother will have a lifetime entitlement to as soon as she arrives. (SSI alone exceeds the total of state and federal costs for AFDC.)
A recent Health and Human Services study of refugees from the former Soviet Union who arrived between 1988 and 1993 (about 250,000) found 59.7 percent of the group to be receiving food stamps and about half to be Medicaid recipients. Twenty-two percent of refugee households in the five-year study group live in public housing, and an astonishing 28 percent of all households in the group have one or more members receiving cash assistance through SSI. The Russian-language press often criticizes “Welfarechiks” whom a reporter describes as “transported to the phantasmagoric ‘bright future’ of socialism . . . they live in little Odessas, Leningrads, and Moscows distinguished from the originals by the fact that the stores are full and housing, food and medical care really are free.”
While much of the United States budget is finally being examined by the public, the cost of refugee support has been ignored by the media and politicians alike. Yet, if public assistance charges for ongoing refugee support at the local, state, and federal levels are added to direct resettlement costs, it is likely that the yearly cost of the refugee program exceeds our entire 1994 foreign aid budget of $13.5 billion. That’s assuming average per-recipient costs, not the hypercosts of fraud. Most of this is due to refugees from earlier waves, principally from Southeast Asia. But the migration from the former Soviet Union began relatively recently, and as the exodus continues, the yearly cost of the program can only go up. Watch for the refugee industry’s campaign to “privatize” the resettlement process. It has nothing to do with limiting access to public assistance and requiring sponsors to foot more of the bill. This privatization campaign is about diverting more federal funds to “private” agencies whose main function is walking the new arrivals through the red tape of public assistance. The partially taxpayer-funded agency for ex-Soviets in New York, with a staff of 550, is already the size of a small government bureau.
One might argue that taxes paid by working refugees cover the costs of dependent refugees. If a system could be devised to direct to Yuri’s mother every dollar paid by her son in taxes and retirement contributions, there probably would be more than enough to cover the expenses. This is the methodology followed in a recent Urban Institute study purporting to show that all immigrants as a group “put into” the system $30 billion more than they “take out.” This logic works quite well for those who believe that a night at the theater should cost only the price of the popcorn. Unfortunately, as taxpayers we have obligations other than assistance programs. If the Urban Institute’s measure for balancing what is “put in” versus what is “taken out” were declared the standard for all United States taxpayers, we would be running a deficit well in excess of a trillion dollars each year.
But why should economics be a factor for refugees whose numbers, at any rate, are insignificant in the overall picture? In recent years about one in seven legal immigrants has been a refugee. The Jordan Commission has recommended refugee admissions of 50,000 a year—less than half the recent rate of admissions. But there is little evidence that legislators or the administration, which sets the yearly refugee quota, will be able to resist domestic pressure politics and the emotion that comes with the very mention of the term “refugee.” “Everything they once had has been destroyed or taken away, probably at gunpoint. Home, family, possessions, all gone,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
When Yuri’s mother arrives, she will be joining about 40,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union alone. Almost none of the immigrants comes from the population of two million actually identified by the UNHCR as refugees in and among the former republics.