MEMO TO MY FRIENDS in the pro-immigration camp: Don't fight the provisions in the legislation before Congress that would drastically restrict government aid to legal immigrants. You won't do immigrants any good by trying to keep the spigot of public assistance open for them. You will raise questions about your own motivation. Is it to safeguard our tradition of welcoming foreigners who want to become Americans? Or is it to preserve and extend the welfare state even for people who aren't US citizens?
Earlier this spring, in a blow to nativists like Pat Buchanan, Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, both houses of Congress defeated efforts to slash legal immigration to the United States. But the bills they did pass crack down on immigrants who receive any form of federal public assistance -- not only cash benefits like welfare and food stamps, but even government-subsidized child care, job training, or student loans. Under the Senate bill, an immigrant who participates in such programs for 12 months during his first five years in the country could be deported. In the House version, it's seven years.
Needless to say, these provisions are being painted as hideously cruel. I say they aren't strict enough. And I say that as an unabashed immigration fan, one who wants to see the Golden Door opened even wider.
It is easy to understand the argument in favor of letting legal immigrants avail themselves of government support that will help them become productive citizens. "Latinos with green cards are able to move out of poverty into a high standard of living" -- thus Lori Kaplan, director of the Latin American Youth Center, to The New York Times last week -- "but they can't do it if they can't learn English, if their babies aren't born healthy, if they can't join job-training programs, and if they can't go to college."
Indubitably. Just don't ask the taxpayers to foot the bill.
Immigrants are the great growth hormone of US history, critical to our prosperity and vitality. But Americans are not obliged to finance any immigrant's transition to citizenship. On the contrary, immigrants are obliged to prove themselves worthy of becoming Americans. How? By getting a job, by staying right with the law, by learning the language -- and by not becoming a public charge. Any foreigner who can't meet those requirements shouldn't bother coming. If he's already here, he should be sent back.
That is a deal tens of millions of foreigners would leap at. The vast majority of immigrants, after all, have never taken a government handout. They don't come to mooch on the American economy, they come to add to it.
Yet the National Immigration Forum is slamming Congress for wanting "to punish legal immigrants for taking positive steps to realize the American Dream." Worse than dishonest, that plays right into the hands of nativists who want the borders sealed.
Denying public assistance to new immigrants punishes nobody. It simply makes clear that immigrants are responsible for financing their own climb to self-sufficiency. To object to that is to argue that even noncitizens have a claim on the public treasury. I can't think of an attitude more likely to fan the anti-immigrant flames. Is that what the National Immigration Forum is after?
It is sad but true that in recent years, welfare use has increased among immigrants. Only by a small fraction, but that's more than enough to feed the ugly stereotype of lazy foreigners coming here to eat off Americans' plates. Immigrants aren't ruining America, but America is ruining immigrants -- easy welfare is trapping some of them in the same culture of dependency that has wrecked millions of American natives. True friends of immigrants should want to keep them as far away as possible from the tentacles of the welfare state.
Some parts of the House and Senate immigration bills truly are unconscionable. For example, the proposed worker computer registry, which would force employers to check with the federal government on the legal status of every new hire -- a totalitarian scheme if there ever was one. US Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio refers to it, unamused, as "1-800-BIG-BROTHER." It certainly has no place in a society that values liberty and limited government.
It is also hard to see what would be gained by retaining the House language that permits states to ban illegal-immigrant students from public schools. There may be a federalism argument here (education policy should be set in 50 state capitals, not in Washington), but it is dwarfed by the sheer perversity of kicking innocent kids out of class. Families that enter the United States illegally may be deported; until they are, their children belong in school.
But don't count me among those clamoring to keep immigrants eligible for public aid. Immigrants don't need government largesse to make it in America. All they need is a chance to prove themselves. The most pro-immigrant message we can send is this: "Welcome to our shores, newcomer. This is the land of freedom and opportunity. If you're looking for giveaways, you've come to the wrong place. But if you've got what it takes to become an American, we invite you to become one of us."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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