Open arms, outstretched hands

Immigrants get more benefits than U.S. natives, study shows


March 7, 1996
Web posted at: 2:15 p.m. EST


From Correspondent Don Knapp

SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- As immigration-reform proposals work their way through Congress, one issue under debate is the cost of welfare, Medicare and other government benefits that legal immigrants receive.

A new Census Bureau study shows immigrants are more likely to receive assistance -- and for a longer period -- than native- born Americans. The two groups receiving the most aid were immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Vietnam.

Disproportionate share of benefits

The nation's immigrant population is at its highest level since World War II: 23 million people from other countries; 8 million in California alone.


Immigration researcher George Borjas of Harvard University expects that "in the near future, the welfare problem in California really will be predominantly an immigrant problem."

While California's immigrants comprise 21 percent of the state's total population, they receive almost 40 percent of the welfare benefits, Borjas says.

Nationwide, his figures show immigrants are 8 percent of the population and receive 14 percent of the benefits.

Defenders: Immigrants contribute

But such numbers are misleading, argues Anita Friedman who works with Russian emigres at San Francisco's Jewish Family and Children's Center.


Immigrants are dependent during their initial years in the United States, but after that their household incomes usually equal or exceed those of native-born Americans, she says. (127K AIFF sound or 127K WAV sound)

"Welfare for a strong man is no good," agrees Russian immigrant Yakov Schwartz. (82K AIFF sound or 82K WAV sound)

In testimony before Congress, immigration-policy critic Norman Matloff charged that social workers encourage immigrants, especially elderly Chinese, to apply for benefits. Among the Chinese immigrants who came to California in the 1980s, 55 percent were on welfare in 1990, he told CNN.

Matloff believes many Chinese Americans bring their parents to the United States so the government will take care of them. But Zhi Yun Hou, an elderly Chinese immigrant now living in California, denies that. She acknowledges getting government assistance, but says she came to the United States to be with her family.


The migration experience helps reunite families, according to Fernando Cheung of the Oakland Chinese Community Council. (93K AIFF sound or 93K WAV sound)

Immigration critics say word is out around the world: there's free money in the United States.

But advocates say focusing the debate on economics loses sight of immigration's social, cultural and humanitarian goals.

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