President Clinton has vowed to correct portions of welfare reform that are “carried out on the backs of immigrants.” About half of the projected savings from the reform comes from limiting immigrant access to welfare. Refugees, who make up about one in seven legal immigrants, were spared most of the restrictions placed on other immigrants in the welfare bill. Refugees, asylees, and others admitted in humanitarian categories are still eligible for all welfare programs upon arrival, but must become citizens to maintain eligibility beyond five years.

There are more than 300,000 refugees and their children dependent on AFDC m California, a caseload which exceeds the total of all AFDC cases in each of 38 states. Those dependent upon programs such as AFDC face the same usage limits and lifetime caps as American citizens. But, far from block grants and time limits, refugee retirees’ entitlement to a lifetime of public assistance starting upon arrival is basically untouched by either program of welfare or immigration reform.

Elderly noncitizens now account for 49 percent of total cash payments made to the elderly under Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the means-based welfare program for the elderly and disabled. The usage of SSI by noncitizens has increased sevenfold in the past 12 years; the largest portion of welfare savings depends upon slowing the growth of this program. Absent successful reform, noncitizen usage is projected to grow at an annual rate of 16 percent, reaching a cost of $45 billion in six years for Medicaid and SSI alone. Even with welfare reform this picture may not change much, A historic tide of naturalizations has guaranteed that noncitizen welfare dependence will simply continue as citizen dependence. (Until recently, citizen usage of SSI was declining.) Furthermore about 40 percent of recent growth is in humanitarian categories which are not affected by the reforms.

Few images have captured the imagination of opinion-shapers like that of elderly immigrants losing their welfare benefits. Molly Ivins, in a typical piece about elderly immigrants and SSI, writes about those who “worked hard, paid their taxes . . . now talking about committing suicide. Just what we always wanted to do: drive a bunch of retired Japanese gardeners and 80-year-old Hispanics whose backs are bent from years of field work to commit suicide.” For the record, most noncitizen users of SSI are not Hispanic, and Japanese comprise less than half a percent of noncitizen users. Moreover, any legal immigrant who has lived in America for five years, which would cover virtually all current noncitizen users of SSI, need only endure the indignity of a dumbed-down citizenship procedure to continue receiving benefits without interruption.

The profile of those who have contributed most to recent growth in immigrant SSI usage is very nearly the opposite of that propagated by the “imagineers” of the national media—that is, they are recent arrivals who have not worked in the United States. Between 1992 and 1994 about 165,605 immigrants arrived from the former Soviet Union, currently the second largest source of immigration to the United States. Over 12 percent of these were 65 or over upon arrival, an additional 10 percent were between the ages of 55 and 64. Virtually all of the elderly and near-elderly arrived as refugees. Since the retirement age in their homeland is 55 for women and 60 for men, many of these “think of themselves as pensioners at an earlier age than would be customary in the U.S.,” according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Not surprisingly, former Soviets have zoomed to second place among noncitizen users of SSI. With their usage growing at a rate of 33 percent a year, they will overtake Mexicans within four years, an astonishing feat considering that large-scale migration from the former Soviet Union began only eight years ago. Following the former Soviets in order of SSI usage are Cubans and Vietnamese, both admitted in humanitarian categories.

A 1995 Health and Human Services study of refugees who arrived in the preceding five years (about 620,000) found 61 percent of the group to be receiving Food Stamps and about half to be Medicaid recipients. About half of the refugee households in the five-year group receive cash assistance through AFDC, SSI, or local General Assistance in spite of the fact that the majority are joining family members who settled in previous waves. About 21 percent of families have one or more members receiving cash assistance through SSI.

Given the hysteria roused by the modest commitment now being asked of those who immigrate to the United States, it is understandable that lawmakers would rather avoid the added accusation that the reforms are being “carried out on the backs of poor refugees.” And if it is to be meaningful and fair, welfare reform must be part of a complete overhaul of the federal government’s obligation to the individual. Obviously other beneficiaries of government largesse must eventually do their part to achieve that realignment. But even welfare reform, the smallest and presumably the easiest of the “personal responsibility” reforms, will stop dead on the day Americans are pushed off the dole to make room for foreign nationals.