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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
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Until passage of the 1996 welfare law, legal immigrants were generally eligible for public benefits on the same basis as citizens. The welfare law conditioned eligibility on citizenship status rather than legal status, extending to most legal immigrants the eligibility restrictions that had traditionally applied only to undocumented immigrants. These unprecedented restrictions effectively redrew the boundaries of social membership in the United States.

The immigrant restrictions have proven to be among the most controversial aspects of the welfare law. In 1997, Congress restored Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to most immigrants who were already in the United States when the welfare law was enacted, and in 1998, it restored food stamp eligibility for immigrant children and for elderly and disabled persons who were here before August 1996. Legislation that would further restore benefits has been introduced in each subsequent session of Congress, although it has typically been limited to a specific program (food stamps), a specific population (domestic violence victims), or some combination of these two (Medicaid for pregnant women and children).

Support for restoring benefits crosses ideological and partisan lines. A report issued by the bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform subsequent to the welfare law’s enactment recommended against denying benefits to legal immigrants solely because they are non-citizens. Most of the legislation mentioned above was introduced or enacted on a bipartisan basis. President Bush’s 2003 budget includes a proposal to restore food stamps to legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years. Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council and a strong supporter of the 1996 law in general, has called for a restoration of benefits for all legal immigrants. Even Newt Gingrich recently stated that the restrictions on legal immigrants’ eligibility for food stamps were “one of the provisions [in the welfare law] that went too far.” (Author)
Washington, D.C.