Immigrants, Welfare and Taxes

These are tough economic times, and tax season makes it even harder. Vitriolic talk and finger-pointing at alleged sources of our economic distress abound. Immigrants are a common target. “They,” say anti-immigration advocates, “have invaded our country, don’t pay taxes and collect welfare.” Is there any truth to such bold, inflammatory statements?

Of course there is some truth, but so is there “some truth” in the scandal sheets that pass as news magazines. There will always be people who abuse the system – both American citizens and otherwise. But let me put the facts into perspective – albeit my own perspective – but colored by twenty-five years of practicing immigration law, familiarity with hundreds of foreign nationals and a greater-than-average familiarity with immigration laws and regulations.

When discussing immigrants and their rights and activities relating to taxes and welfare, one must distinguish between documented, or “legal” immigrants, and undocumented immigrants. Legal immigrants are actually very limited in the federal and state government benefits to which they are entitled. Since immigration law limits the grant of permanent resident status to those who prove they will not become a “public charge,” legal immigrants typically have jobs or financial sponsors, pay their taxes and are not eligible for most public benefits for several years after acquiring permanent resident status.

Undocumented persons in the United States without authorization are eligible for emergency Medicaid; and undocumented children are eligible for public education. Undocumented folks who work typically have taxes withheld by their employers and don’t request refunds so as not to draw attention to themselves.

These are facts about immigrants, welfare and taxes. I don’t see much “wiggle-room” for reducing benefits further. Do we really want to deprive undocumented children of an education? Our United States Supreme Court ruled in a case entitled Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children, as “persons” in the United States, have a Fourteenth Amendment right to a public education. Furthermore, the Court observed that not educating these children would result in the creation of a subclass of illiterate people, which would likely exacerbate the problems of unemployment and crime. As for medical care, would you want to turn away anyone needing immediate attention for a life-threatening condition?

Our federal and state governments have already pared down to the bone those benefits available to documented and undocumented immigrants. Further restrictions would be unreasonable; and, in some cases, inhuman. Yet, we do expend valuable resources on undocumented folks.

The solution – or, more realistically, mitigation – of the problem needs to begin with our federal and state governments, which must step up their game and stop blaming the immigrants for abuse of the system. Our government needs to verify the identity and status of everyone collecting benefits and, more importantly, effectively, fairly and humanely control the entry of persons into our country. That’s where the wiggle-room for improvement lies.

This article should not be relied upon as legal advice. Consult an immigration attorney for advice specific to your situation.