The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996:
An Examination of its Impact on Legal Immigrants and Refugees in Rhode Island

Part I

Statement of Concerns

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of August 22, 1996[1] (the Welfare Reform Act) changed the way our government views immigrants and refugees residing in our country. This change, the Rhode Island Advisory Committee believes, has been dramatic and substantial, not only altering the current welfare system but also restricting access of documented immigrants to a wide range of government programs such as food stamps, supplemental security income, medicaid, medicare, assisted housing, and educational grants.[2] The Welfare Reform Act also required the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to establish a verification system to determine the eligibility of immigrants for most Federal public benefits.[3]

To gather information on the adverse impact of the Welfare Reform Act on legal immigrants and refugees in Rhode Island, the Committee conducted a consultation on February 9, 1998, in Providence. This consultation was designed to:

  1. Help determine the nature and the extent to which the implementation of the Welfare Reform Act has had adverse effects on legal immigrants and refugees in the State.

  2. Help determine if and how Rhode Island State policies and/or private agencies plan to ameliorate adverse conditions that may result from the implementation of these statutes.

  3. Learn the current efforts from the Rhode Island congressional delegation to ameliorate such adverse conditions that may result from these Federal regulations.

The consultation consisted of three panels: (1) civil rights and immigrant rights advocates and service providers; (2) Federal, State, and local government agency providers and policymakers; and (3) representatives of the Rhode Island congressional delegation.

Based on the information gathered at the consultation and supplemented by limited followup research, this report provides a summary of the consultation in two parts. After a brief introduction on the Welfare Reform Act, the first part provides a summary of civil rights issues or areas of concern identified by the three panels at the consultation, while the second part presents an edited transcript of the proceedings.

The Welfare Reform Act

Under the Welfare Reform Act, most immigrants and refugees arriving to the United States on or after August 22, 1996, are barred from Federal means-tested benefit programs for 5 years, including food stamps[4] and supplemental security income (SSI).[5] The act also cuts off SSI benefits to alien refugees and those granted political asylum after 7 years from the date they were admitted to the United States.[6]

The immigrant provisions of the Welfare Reform Act raise serious legal concerns because they condition eligibility for government benefits on citizenship status. Since citizenship status is not a prerequisite for equal protection under the Civil Rights Act,[7] the act has the potential to discriminate against national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities, particularly Asians and Hispanics, who are the majority of the new immigrant population to the United States.

The premise of welfare reform, according to its proponents, is that people who are able to work should be encouraged to find employment so that they will not remain dependent on government assistance; nonetheless, blind, elderly, and disabled immigrants, who are the least likely to find sufficient employment to sustain themselves, are affected by this act.

Once an immigrant loses Federal benefits, State benefits generally become available. But after January 1, 1997, States can now choose to determine whether current immigrants are eligible for State-administered Federal benefits such as temporary assistance to needy families (TANF), medicaid, and other benefits. States now have the option to bar new immigrants and refugees access to State-funded programs.

In light of these losses and civil rights concerns, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a letter to President Clinton in which it stressed that the Welfare Reform Act specifically states that civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination in federally assisted programs apply to programs funded under the new legislation and that the Commission and its State Advisory Committees will closely monitor its implementation.[8]

The Welfare Reform Act’s impact on legal immigrants and refugees residing in this country is far reaching. Although immigrants account for only about 5 percent of the population receiving welfare benefits, almost half of the $54.2 billion cuts in welfare benefits mandated by the act comes from eliminating Federal benefits for legal immigrants and refugees.[9] The Congressional Budget Office estimates that more than a million legal immigrants will lose access to food stamps, and tens of thousands of legal refugees will lose their SSI benefits in the next 5 years.[10] The impact of these losses in assistance could increase if States exercise their authority to deny benefits under TANF, medicaid, and other programs.[11]

Rhode Island is home to a large number of legal immigrants and refugees. In 1996, the last date of available data, approximately 4,114 elderly and disabled legal immigrants in Rhode Island received SSI benefits.[12] Also in 1996, approximately 8,250 legal immigrant Rhode Islanders living in approximately 5,200 families received food stamp assistance.[13] Benefit service providers estimated that by August 1998, approximately 6,400 legal immigrants in Rhode Island will have been removed from the Federal food stamp program, and thousands of elderly and disabled legal immigrants will not be eligible for the Federal SSI program.[14]

Panel 1: Immigrant Rights Advocates and Service Providers

In order to gain a better understanding of the legislation’s impact, the Committee heard presentations from six immigrant rights advocates and service providers: (1) the Rhode Island Health Center Association, (2) Rhode Island Legal Services, (3) the Genesis Center, (4) Progresso Latino, (5) the International Institute, and (6) the Socio-economic Center for Southeast Asians. Representatives from these organizations stated that their main concerns were:

  1. Lack of a State safety net once benefits are cut.

  2. Lack of interpreters in State and Federal benefits offices.

  3. States pressing for recovery of public benefits.

  4. Insufficient programs and instructors to teach immigrants English.

  5. Citizen children may be more likely to drop out of school to support their families.

The panelists provided the Committee with examples of these concerns and others during their presentations.

Concern 1:  Lack of a safety net

As a result of the Welfare Reform Act’s provisions, the Committee was concerned with the potential gaps in public services and loss of benefits to low-income legal immigrants and refugees. The Committee questioned whether a State safety net was in place to assist those who would lose their Federal benefits and what type of assistance, if any, they could expect.

Linda Katz, an attorney with the Rhode Island Health Center Association, a nonprofit organization providing social services to low-income individuals, provided answers to the Committee. She stated that because of the lack of State general assistance programs, legal immigrants over 65, who were in this country before August 22, 1997, but were ineligible to qualify for supplemental security income (SSI) on the basis of disability, are now faced with no means of support. The State of Rhode Island has no safety net to cover those immigrants who are ineligible for SSI benefits.[15]

Katz shared examples of where policies fail immigrants. Families arriving after August 22, 1996, are ineligible for the State’s TANF program and are barred from food stamps for 5 years with no State-funded food stamp program available to them. And, if one of those individuals is in an accident and becomes disabled, he or she cannot get SSI benefits because of the 5-year ban. Katz believes that it is unfair to categorize immigrants by date of entry into this country, and immigrants who arrive after August 22, 1996, should have the same access to assistance as citizens.[16]

Concern 2: Lack of interpreters and notices in native languages at State and Federal agencies

The lack of interpreters and notices in native languages at the Rhode Island Department of Human Services and Federal Social Security offices was pointed out as a serious problem. In addition, allegedly inconsistent and potentially harmful administrative procedures were said to adversely affect immigrants and refugees seeking assistance.

This issue was raised by both Katz and Gretchen Bath, an attorney for Rhode Island Legal Services. “This is a real civil rights issue that needs to be addressed at these agencies,” Bath said. “People at these agencies are telling immigrants that they are not eligible. They are sent away with oral denials, no applications are taken, and no hearings are advised or scheduled.”[17] When given an informal oral denial, according to Bath, persons usually leave the office without filing an application and without the knowledge that they can appeal. She said that people are not aware what they can do to press their claim, “because that’s an oral decision about eligibility, there’s no notice that goes out, there’s no appeal from that, there’s no documentation, even. We get told many, many times from clients they were orally informed that they should not bother applying.”[18]

Katz stated, “People should be able to come and ask their questions, and the DHS [Depart­ment of Human Services] worker there should understand what their goals are. There is a lot of confusion on the part of workers as well. Train the workers to understand what the law means and how they need to apply it.”[19] She and Bath made four recommendations

  1. State and Federal agencies should develop a system to track requests for assistance and reasons for the denials of benefits.

  2. State agencies should work together to formulate standard questions to obtain the right information from immigrant applicants.

  3. The Rhode Island Department of Human Services should train the human service worker to understand the meaning, intent, and reach of the Welfare Reform Act in order to preclude a climate of hostility.

  4. The number of interpreters should be increased at State and Federal agencies.[20]

Concern 3: States pressing for recovery of public benefits from immigrants

A trend is emerging nationwide for States to start pressing for the recovery of medical assistance or other public benefits from immigrants who leave the United States and then choose to reenter. The Committee is concerned that States are showing an increased interest in implementing the public charge provisions related to INS regulations.

Gretchen Bath gave an example where:

A pregnant woman gets medical assistance benefits in the United States to which she is entitled. The State pays for the cost of the delivery and childbirth. The legal immigrant’s husband, who is not eligible for benefits, leaves the country for whatever reason and then tries to return. When he tries to come back, the INS says, “No, you can’t come back into the country until you repay us the medical assistance benefits that we paid for your wife.”[21]

Bath believes that States provide information to the INS to track these immigrants.[22]

This concern was also raised by Patricia Martinez, director of Progresso Latino, a nonprofit, multiservice agency serving the Latino community, who stated that immigrants who apply at U.S. embassies will not get a visa until they have proved that the relative who has petitioned for them has paid the State for benefits provided to them under the public charge provision. Some of the benefits such as RIte Care[23] need not be reimbursed, but immigrants, according to Martinez, do not have the proper information and fear that they may face these financial obstacles.[24]

Concern 4: Insufficient programs and instructors to teach immigrants English

The command of English language skills is vital if immigrants are to move into the work force. Yet there seem to be insufficient programs and instructors to teach immigrants English.

According to Sister Marlene Laliberte, director of the Genesis Center, a school and support center for adult refugees and immigrants, 15 weeks (the common time limit in most welfare-to-work programs) to learn English and to do job training is insufficient. She claimed, “It is unreasonable to require an immigrant without English-speaking skills to move from welfare into the English-speaking work force in such a very short time.”[25] She currently has 100 to 150 people who would like to learn English and move into the work force, but they cannot be accommodated because she does not have enough programs or instructors.[26] She believes that “we need more English as a second language programs and it should be available to anyone who needs it so that they can move on.”[27]

Other panelists voiced similar concerns. Patricia Martinez recommended that additional adult language and employment classes be offered and that the educational period to teach English and to train the immigrant in reading and writing be expanded.[28]

William Shuey, director of the International Institute, an organization that assists immigrants with legal assistance and with English classes, recommended that in addition to offering more English classes, there should be programs to teach cultural norms of the workplace. Realties of the workplace, according to Shuey, are different from the views of social workers, and the immigrant should become familiar with workplace norms and expectations.[29]

Joseph Lee, with the Socio-economic Center for Southeast Asians, an organization that provides social and legal services to the Southeast Asian immigrant community, also expressed concern over the acquisition of language skills and its impact on employment opportunities. According to Lee, “It is very difficult for Cambodians to learn English. They must learn a new alphabet and fight the post-traumatic syndrome of the Southeast Asian wars.”[30] Between family obligations and work, newly arrived immigrants have little free time to learn English sufficiently to compete in the workplace.

They should be helped while they are trying to learn English and find a decent job, at least helped with medical assistance, Lee believes. He recalled the story of an elderly Cambodian woman who had to go back to Cambodia after living here almost a year because her children could not support her. The mother had medical needs and did not want to be a burden on the children, so she decided to move back to Cambodia. Lee concluded by saying, “[Immigrants] work, they pay taxes, and they should be entitled to help when they need it.”[31]

Responding to the concerns of these panelists, representatives of the Rhode Island congressional delegation expressed their agreement with the need for increased funding for programs teaching English to immigrants. The delegation agreed to return to Washington with this concern and try to find funds to support more English classes for immigrants.[32]

Concern 5: A potential increase in the school dropout rate for immigrant children

One of the biggest concerns in the immigrant community is poverty, and welfare reform is forcing many families to be in even worse poverty situations than they were before, causing an unfortunate chain of events. As the parents lose benefits and are unable to work, it falls upon the children of these families to become the principal wage earners.

According to Patricia Martinez, many of them, 15- and 16-year-olds, try to continue to go to school and work at the same time, but eventually their grades suffer and they end up dropping out of school to support their families full time. She believes that “citizen children are being punished because their parents are not citizens,”[33] and as such the Welfare Reform Act violates the civil rights of protected classes such as the elderly, females, Latinos, and Southeast Asians.[34]

Panel 2: State and Federal Agencies

Representatives of State and Federal agencies that serve immigrants, the Rhode Island Department of Health Services and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), made presentations, stating that their main concerns were:

  1. The adverse effect on the low-income aged and disabled immigrant population.

  2. Reluctance by legal immigrants to participate in State medical programs, especially childhood disease intervention programs.

  3. An increase in citizenship applications and procedures with a limited INS staff.

The panelists provided the Committee with examples of these concerns and others during their presentations.

Concern 6: Inflexibility of the 5-year ban for elderly and disabled immigrants

The Welfare Reform Act provides that after August 22, 1996, those immigrants who were not already enrolled in a Federal means-tested benefits program are barred for 5 years from these programs, including food stamps and SSI. The 5-year ban on Federal benefits to immigrants is so inflexible, regardless of changes in circumstances, that it could seriously affect needy immigrants.

Susan Sweet of the Rhode Island Department of Human Services recommended eliminating the ban and amending the act to allow legal immigrants an opportunity to present evidence of a change in their circumstances in order to qualify for benefits without waiting the full 5 years.[35] Sweet stated, “You could have a situation where a person could lose their job, be burned out of their home, or through no fault of their own have a terrible illness. I think there should be flexible provisions to cover such circumstances.”[36] The Welfare Reform Act singles out low-income aged and disabled legal immigrants who will lose their SSI benefits. She reported that the number of aged and disabled immigrants who fall into this category is currently about 500 or 600 in Rhode Island, but that figure will grow as more people turn 65 and become ineligible for SSI benefits.[37]

Concern 7: Children’s health policies

Within immigrant communities, there is confusion as to which programs are being cut and also there is, according to some panelists, fear to come forward for medical assistance.

Dr. Peter Simon, assistant medical director of the Division of Family Health, Rhode Island Department of Health, sees most of the effect of welfare reform falling upon families with young children. “One of the immediate effects that we are going to see is that children are going to be requiring more and more State-funded components of their care, since their entitlements to Federal subsidies are lost due to legislation.”[38] He explained the difficulty in finding accurate information by immigrants who are easily confused by the language barrier as well as the rising confusion of eligibility and access to services for those in the low-income population. He recommended additional training for the eligibility staff to assist immigrants who are seeking information and outreach efforts by the department to disseminate accurate information to the immigrant communities.

Reaching families with infants and young children for the department’s programs is a daunting task, according to Simon. There is increasing resistance to participate in some of the public health programs by immigrant women and families: “They do not know what will happen if they participate. The perception in the immigrant community is that the records kept might be used against them by immigration officials, which is not true.”[39] Simon concluded:

I’m concerned that this disengagement or reluctance to participate in our programs may lead the community to evolve into various outbreaks of disease. Bacteria and viruses don’t discriminate against people with legal status. They are equal opportunity agents. We see a potential threat if we don’t continue to maintain high levels of participation in some of those communitywide programs to prevent or detect early diseases that have public health significance.[40]

Concern 8: Delays in citizenship processing

There is an accumulating backlog in citizenship processing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and this processing delay adversely affects an immigrant’s ability to receive Federal benefits.

June Tancredi, who is the acting officer in charge of the local INS regional office, reported that the number of people who have applied for naturalization has increased dramatically since the law went into effect. From fiscal year 1995 to fiscal year 1997, her office saw a 59 percent increase in applications. In 1995, 3,428 people applied for citizenship in Rhode Island while in 1997, 5,832 applied.[41] Currently, the processing time to become a U.S. citizen is 10 to 12 months. The INS does entertain on a case-by-case basis requests for expedited processing by people who are affected by some compelling reason.[42]

Explaining the citizenship process, Tancredi noted that in order to become a citizen one must be able to read, write, and understand English and have a fundamental knowledge of U.S. history and government. The law does allow exceptions for certain groups. If you are 50 years of age and have 20 years of residence or 55 years of age and have 15 years of residence, you are eligible to be tested in your native language. There is also a disability exception for those with a medically determined mental or physical impairment that has lasted for more than a year, exempting them from the English and history requirements.[43]

Tancredi recommended that an increase in staff would alleviate the backlog of citizenship applications and shorten the processing time for citizenship. Further, a more multilingual staff would make applicants feel more comfortable coming into the office and expressing their concerns and questions.[44]

Panel 3: Rhode Island Congressional Delegation

To learn of the efforts the congressional delegation has made to eliminate some of the adverse effects of the Welfare Reform Act, the Committee heard presentations by representatives from the offices of Senator John Chafee, Senator Jack Reed, and Congressman Robert Weygand.

The entire delegation stated that although they supported the Welfare Reform Act, they were against some of the adverse effects the legislation would have on legal immigrants. The delegation explained that they have been trying to restore various components of public assistance to legal immigrants, including food stamps, SSI, and medicaid.

Senator Reed’s representative, Norelys Consuegra, reported that the Senator is concerned with the Federal components of the law that deny legal immigrants access to SSI, food stamps, and other services. She stated that Senator Reed believes we should work to reform our nation’s welfare system without targeting one specific group over another.[45]

The delegation was also in agreement about the much-needed increase in funds for teaching English to immigrants. The delegation agreed to return to Washington with this concern and try to find funds to support more English classes for immigrants.[46]

[1] Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105 (codified as amended in scattered sections of 8 U.S.C. and 42 U.S.C.).

[2] Id., §§ 401–404, 411A, 1105 Stat. 2105, 2261–2267 (1996) (codified as amended at 8 U.S.C. §§ 1611–1614, 42 U.S.C. §§ 6119, 1437y (Supp. III 1997)).

[3] Id., §432, 110 Stat. 2105, 2274–2275 (1996) (codified as amended at 42 U.S.C. § 1642 (Supp. III 1997)).

[4] 8 U.S.C. § 1613(A) (Supp. III 1997). This and other provisions of the act deny benefits to a category of immigrants designated as “qualified aliens,” which includes legal permanent residents, asylees, refugees, those granted withholding of deportation, those paroled for at least 1 year, those granted conditional entry pursuant to a family-sponsored preference allocation in effect prior to Apr. 1, 1980, and Cuban and Haitian entrants. 8 U.S.C. § 1641(b)(1)–(7) (Supp. III 1997). Immigrants who are not “qualified,” as defined by the statute, never became eligible for Federal and State benefits. The act has special provisions for certain immigrants, including refugees, asylees, and other legal noncitizens whose deportation is being withheld (often referred to as the “political status” exception), those who have worked 40 qualifying quarters (“qualifying quarters” exception), and for veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their spouses and dependents (“military” exception). 8 U.S.C. §§ 1612–1613 (Supp. III 1997).

[5] Supplemental security income (SSI), a provision of the Social Security Act of 1935, Title XVI, provides benefits to low-income people who are 65 years or older, blind, or disabled.

[6] The Welfare Reform Act as enacted barred all legal noncitizen immigrants from receiving SSI benefits. An amendment to the act was enacted as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 that restored SSI eligibility to those already receiving SSI as of the date of the act. The act had also stipulated that refugees would lose their SSI benefits within 5 years from entering the country. The amendment extended the number of years from 5 to 7 before cutting off SSI benefits. Balanced Budget Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-33, § 5302(a), 111 Stat. 251, 598 (1997) (codified at 8 U.S.C §1612(a)(2) (Supp. III 1997).

[7] Section 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides: “No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participating in, or be denied benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Pub. L. No. 88-352, tit. VI, § 601, 28 Stat. 241, 252 (1964) (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000D (1997)).

[8] The Commission expressed concern for the protection of civil rights and requested information regarding “the administration’s program for ensuring the enforcement of these civil rights measures as TANF is implemented by the States,” in a letter to the President dated Sept. 26, 1996. Mary Frances Berry to the President, Sept. 26, 1996, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Library.

[9] See National Immigration Law Center, “Immigrant Provisions of the Welfare Bill,” July 27, 1996, p. 1.

[10] Congressional Budget Office, Federal Budgetary Implications of H.R. 3734, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, Aug. 9, 1996), pp. 14–15.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Linda Katz, “Federal Bar on SSI and Food Stamps for Legal Immigrants Impact on Rhode Island,” Rhode Island Health Center Association, May 1997, p. 3.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Providence Journal, May 1, 1997, p. B–4.

[15] Linda Katz, testimony before the Rhode Island Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community consultation, Providence, RI, Feb. 9, 1998. Edited Transcript (hereafter cited as Edited Transcript), p. 11. The full transcript of these proceedings is on file at the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office.

[16] Ibid., and pp. 12–13.

[17] Bath Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 14.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Katz Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 12.

[20] Katz and Bath Testimony, Edited Transcript, pp. 11–15.

[21] Bath Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 13.

[22] Ibid., p. 14.

[23] RIte Care is a Rhode Island program that provides limited health care benefits to indigent and needy families.

[24] Martinez Testimony, Edited Transcript, pp. 17–18.

[25] Laliberte Testimony, Edited Transcript, pp. 15–16.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 16.

[28] Martinez Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 17.

[29] Shuey Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 20.

[30] Lee Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 21.

[31] Ibid., p. 22.

[32] Consuegra, Herrington, and Labonte Testimony, Edited Transcript, pp. 32–35.

[33] Martinez Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 18.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Sweet Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 24.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., and pp. 25–26.

[38] Simon Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 27.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., pp. 28–29.

[41] Tancredi Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 29.

[42] Ibid., p. 30.

[43] Ibid., p. 31.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Consuegra Testimony, Edited Transcript, p. 34.

[46] Consuegra, Herrington, and Labonte Testimony, Edited Transcript, pp. 32–35.