Thursday, April 4, 2013

Immigration Fight Stirs Debate Over Federal Benefits

Did you know that U.S. law forbids the admission of any immigrant who is likely to depend on public assistance? It's right there in Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, first passed in the 1950s and still the law today:
"Any alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible."

The plain language of the law hardly squares with reports that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has sought to promote the use of food stamps and other welfare programs among newly arrived immigrants. (Legal ones; the law forbids those benefits for illegal immigrants.) In 2004, in the Bush years, the feds even began a partnership with the Mexican government to encourage Mexicans to sign up for government assistance as soon as they arrived in the U.S.

And now, the Obama administration forbids American consular officers from even considering whether a prospective immigrant might end up on dozens of public assistance programs when evaluating that immigrant's admissibility to the U.S. The policy came as a surprise to four top Republican senators when they learned about it last year.

"It has long been a sound principle of immigration law that those who seek citizenship in this country ought to be financially self-sufficient," Sens. Jeff Sessions, Orrin Hatch, Charles Grassley and Pat Roberts wrote in an August 2012 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "We were thus shocked to discover that both the State Department and DHS exclude reliance on almost all governmental welfare programs when evaluating whether an alien is likely to become a public charge."

Specifically, the senators were stunned to discover that while government policy allows an American official to consider whether a prospective immigrant might end up on Supplemental Security Income, or on the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the official cannot weigh whether the immigrant would need more than 70 other means-tested programs: Medicaid, food stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, child care benefits, educational assistance and more than a dozen nutritional programs.

"Indeed, under your interpretation," the senators wrote in that letter to Napolitano and Clinton, "an able-bodied immigrant of working age could receive the bulk of his or her income in the form of federal welfare and still not be deemed a 'public charge.'"

Controversial in its own right, the question of government benefits for noncitizen immigrants has come up again in the debate over comprehensive immigration reform. In the early hours of Saturday, March 23, during the so-called vote-a-rama on amendments to the budget, the Senate rejected, by a vote of 56-43, a measure that would have denied access to Medicaid and, in coming years, to subsidies under Obamacare, for immigrants who came to the United States illegally but would be legalized through immigration reform.

The vote was almost entirely along party lines; Democrats voted against the amendment, and Republicans voted for it.

Sessions, an opponent of the so-called Gang of Eight bipartisan outline for reform, touted the vote as a milestone. "The Senate Democrat majority voted to extend free and subsidized health care -- specifically, Medicaid and Obamacare -- to illegal immigrants who could be granted legal status under any comprehensive immigration bill," he said. "The result of [this] vote places immigration reform in jeopardy."

That remains to be seen. But it is true that every Democrat on the Gang of Eight -- Charles Schumer, Richard Durbin, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet -- voted against the amendment, while the Republican members of the Gang -- Marco Rubio, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake -- voted for it.

Republicans in the Gang, especially Rubio, have repeatedly insisted that newly legalized immigrants will not be eligible for federal benefits under their comprehensive immigration reform proposal, and there's no reason to think they don't mean what they say. But the Democratic majority's vote on the Sessions amendment, plus the Obama administration's extraordinarily lax policy on benefits, suggests Democrats have very different ideas on the subject.

That could indeed place immigration reform in jeopardy. And even if comprehensive immigration reform becomes law with tough benefits restrictions in place, a Democratic administration will shape how it is enforced. Under almost any scenario, the benefits battle will last far beyond the current immigration debate.


The Australian Labor party's talk against LEGAL immigrant scheme 'disgraceful and racist': Murdoch

A lot of the immigrants concerned are Chinese

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch has denounced the Gillard government's rhetoric on the skilled foreign worker visa program as "disgraceful and racist".

The News Corporation chairman took a swipe at the federal government's promised crackdown on the 457 visa scheme and promoted the importance of immigration while visiting the Northern Territory on Tuesday.

In a speech in Sydney's west last month, Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared the government had a plan "to stop foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back".

The government announced a series of measures it said were needed to close loopholes and prevent "rorting" of the 457 visa scheme by unscrupulous employers, but business groups and the opposition denied abuse was widespread.

Mr Murdoch told Sky News on Tuesday the way the government was talking about the visa scheme was "pretty disgraceful and racist".

"I'm a big one for encouraging immigration; I think that's the future and a mixture of people, just look at America. It's just fantastic," he said.

"You have difficulties [with] the first generation of migrants sometimes if there's too many from one area, but they meld [in] a couple of generations and it leads to a tremendous creativity in the community."

Senior ministers have previously brushed aside claims of racism, saying the government's position was simply that the 457 visa scheme should be used to meet only genuine skill shortages with positions that could not be filled by Australians.

The Greens recently accused the Gillard government of dog-whistling over the 457 visa scheme crackdown.

But Greens leader Christine Milne said on Tuesday the Murdoch-owned newspapers across Australia had been using the same kind of language about asylum seekers.  "If he [Mr Murdoch] is big on the creativity that immigrants bring to a community then he should tell his editors to take that view to asylum seekers," she told Sky News.

Mr Murdoch's trip to the Northern Territory included a visit to the offices of one of his newspapers, the NT News, and meetings with business and political leaders.

An arm of Mr Murdoch's News Corporation, News Limited, publishes papers including The Australian, Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun.

Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury dismissed Mr Murdoch's comments on Tuesday afternoon, saying there was "nothing racist about standing up for jobs and job opportunities for Australians".

"What we have seen have been many examples and many instances of abuses and rorts in this area," Mr Bradbury told reporters in Sydney.

"We think it's absolutely essential that we crack down on those rorts and those loopholes."

Mr Murdoch's comments on the 457 visa program rhetoric are not the first time he and his company have clashed with the Gillard government in recent weeks.

His newspapers led a ferocious campaign against Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's ill-fated media regulation proposals, which failed to garner enough parliamentary support last month. Fairfax Media, owner of this website, also opposed the media reform plans.

Billionaire James Packer last month used a speech to the Asia Society to warn politicians from all parties against sending xenophobic messages overseas.

"Some of the recent public debate does not reflect well on any of us. Even worse, it plays on fears and prejudices and is completely unnecessary. We are all better than that," Mr Packer said.

Mr Packer's speech came after the government and the Coalition traded blows in recent weeks over the increase in overseas workers on 457 visas in Australia and the arrival of more boats carrying asylum seekers.


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