Legal Immigrants Major Welfare Users

A NEW study showing a rising percentage of immigrants on welfare by economist George Borjas wasn't cited in California's Proposition 187 debate earlier this month. It was undergoing academic peer review, and thus the University of California, San Diego, professor didn't seek publicity for his report. But if his numbers had been widely known, the proposition, which would deny schooling and free nonemergency health care to undocumented immigrants, might well have passed by a wider margin.

His findings may yet fuel the drive by some Republicans to deny welfare benefits to most legal immigrants.

In his paper, Mr. Borjas shows that more and more immigrants are seeking and getting welfare. This is because, on average, recent waves of immigrants are less educated and skilled than their predecessors. Further, many immigrants, particularly refugees, ``assimilate'' into welfare. The probability that they will seek welfare increases as they get older - contrary to the widespread assumption that as immigrants assimilate into United States society, they will no longer need welfare.

Further, the cost of immigrants on welfare is rising even faster.

``You don't have to be racist, restrictivist, or nativist to be concerned,'' says Borjas, who is of Cuban heritage himself.

For the time being, the courts are holding up implementation of Proposition 187. Some experts suspect it may need a Supreme Court decision. The welfare restriction on legal immigrants, part of the GOP's ``Contract With America,'' could be part of welfare reform legislation in the next Congress.

(Illegal immigrants in California are not eligible for welfare. But Borjas notes that fake green cards can be bought on the streets of Los Angeles for under $100.)

Borjas suspects that the California initiative is ``the first bombshell'' on the road to a new immigration policy for the US. Under current law, more immigrants will enter the US during the 1990s than in any other decade in the country's history. Some 800,000 enter each year legally, perhaps another 200,000 illegally and settle down permanently, he reckons.

Using Census Bureau data, Borjas found:

* In 1970, immigrants were slightly less likely, on average, to receive cash benefits than natives. By 1990, the welfare participation of immigrant households was 9.1 percent, or about 1.7 percentage points higher than that of native households.

* By 1990, although only 8.4 percent of heads of households were foreign-born, these households accounted for 10.1 percent of all households getting welfare, and for 13.1 percent of the total cash assistance distributed. In California, the 21.1 percent of householders that are foreign-born account for 27 percent of households on welfare and 32 percent of total assistance.

* Welfare participation of a specific wave of immigrant households has increased over time. Only 5.5 percent of the households that migrated between 1965 and 1969 received public assistance in 1970. But about 10 percent of that group got welfare in 1980 and 1990. A similar pattern prevailed for immigrants arriving between 1975 and 1979 - 8.3 percent welfare participation in 1980, 10 percent in 1990.

* Welfare propensity varies widely across national origin groups. Only about 2 percent to 4 percent of households originating in South Africa, Taiwan, or Britain get welfare; 11 percent to 12 percent for those from Ecuador and Mexico.

* Refugees have a high propensity to be on welfare. Those from Vietnam have a 25.8 percent participation rate; from Cuba or the Soviet Union 16 percent. Refugees or political asylees have immediate access to welfare and other social services.

``The impact of this introduction to the welfare state seems to be both profound and long-lasting,'' Borjas says.

Some critics of Proposition 187 say taxes paid by immigrants more than pay for their welfare and education costs. Borjas does a rough calculation in his National Bureau of Economic Research paper showing that if other government services (highways, defense, parks, etc.) that benefit immigrants are prorated to them, immigrants add $16 billion to the nation's tax burden.

Immigrants may provide the upper middle class with inexpensive gardeners and nannies; all taxpayers pay the bill, Borjas says.

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