The 1996 welfare reform law dramatically limited legal immigrants’ access to public benefits, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Food Stamps, and Medicaid. While eligibility for certain benefits has been restored for some populations, whether to make further restorations will be a major issue confronting policy makers during welfare reform reauthorization this year. A number of bipartisan bills have already been introduced to address this issue, and the Bush Administration has highlighted a proposal in the President’s FY 2003 budget to restore Food Stamp eligibility for legal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least five years.
The Welfare Reform & Beyond initiative will hold a forum to examine the effects of the 1996 changes for legal immigrants and the policy options on the table this year. The program will begin with a brief summary of the complex provisions related to benefits for legal immigrants in the 1996 welfare law and subsequent legislative changes. This will be followed by a review of available evidence on what has happened to immigrant families’ participation in public benefit programs as a result of these provisions and also state policy choices in the wake of the 1996 law. Two members of Congress will present the arguments for maintaining the existing restrictions and for restoring eligibility for benefits, and a Bush Administration official will discuss the President’s proposal. We will conclude with a discussion of policy options from a variety of perspectives.