How Are Immigrants Faring After Welfare Reform?. Part I. A Profile of the Los Angeles and New York Immigrant Population Following Welfare Reform


During the 1990s, federal and state policy officials were engaged in public policy debates about both welfare and public assistance for low-income people and immigration and the role of immigrants in American society. In 1996, these debates intersected, resulting in the passage of two laws that significantly limited the extent to which legally admitted immigrants could participate in means-tested benefit programs, including the Food Stamp Program (FSP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Before 1996, immigrants who were lawfully admitted to the United States as permanent residents were generally eligible for benefit programs on terms similar to those of citizens. The new laws prohibited many legal immigrants from receiving federal means-tested benefits, even if they were very poor. An underlying philosophy of the new policies was that immigrants, particularly newly arrived ones, should not depend on the government for assistance and should rely instead on their own efforts and on their sponsors, who helped bring them into the country. Yet some worried that the policies might harm an already vulnerable segment of society.

Since the passage of welfare reform in 1996, how have low-income immigrants fared? This report is part of a broader research project that seeks to provide timely information about the economic and health status of immigrants, particularly in the context of the welfare reform policy changes. This report analyzes data from the new Los Angeles-New York City Immigrant Survey (LANYCIS), a study of over 3,400 immigrant families, that is, families with foreign-born adults. It provides a preliminary overview of the status of low-income immigrant families in these two urban areas. Other parts of the project include case study reports about the status of immigrants and the institutions that provide them with health and human services, analyses of existing data sources, and follow-up in-person interviews with a subsample of 200 families (Zimmermann and Fix 1998; Fix and Passel 1999; Ku and Freilich 2001).

We focused on Los Angeles County and New York City  the two urban areas with the most immigrants, serving as home to almost 6 million foreign-born persons, roughly one-fifth of the nation's immigrants (who totaled about 30 million in Census 2000).(2) While the experiences of these two cities cannot be generalized to the whole country, these two key immigrant areas in the United States are communities with diverse immigrant populations and political environments.(3) For example, while immigrants in Los Angeles are principally Mexican, Central American, or Asian, the foreign-born population of New York City is quite global and includes Dominicans, other Caribbean immigrants, and Russians, as well as a large number of Mexican and Asian immigrants. Furthermore, the two areas had different policy environments for immigrants. While the political attitudes toward immigrants in California moderated somewhat since the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, immigration  particularly illegal immigration  remains a visible and often tense policy issue in Los Angeles, while the issue is less divisive in New York City, the nation's "melting pot." Nonetheless, California has enacted more inclusive social safety net programs for immigrants, particularly support for those arriving after August 22, 1996, than has New York State (Zimmermann and Tumlin 1999).

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