The U.S. - A Retirement Home for Immigrants

By Robert Rector
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

The U.S. welfare system is rapidly becoming a deluxe retirement home for the elderly of other countries.Projected costs (in billions) for resident aliens

Number of aliens on SSI * SSI cost * Medicaid cost * Total










2004 854,323









3,184,003 $4.3









$20.9 $7.7









$46.2 $12.0










Source SSI and Medicaid costs from Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives, "Overview of Entitlement Programs," 1994 Greenbook. In 1994, nearly 738,000 noncitizen residents were receiving aid from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. This was a 580% increase - up from 127,900 in 1982 - in just 12 years. The overwhelming majority of noncitizen SSI recipients are elderly. Most apply for welfare within 5 years of arriving in the U.S.

An analysis by Norman Matloff of the University of California at Davis shows that 45% of elderly immigrants in California received cash welfare in 1990. Among Russian immigrants the figure was 66%; among Chinese, 55%. Worse, recent immigrants are far more likely to become welfare dependents than those who arrived in the U.S. in earlier decades. If current trends continue, the U.S. will have more than three million noncitizens on SSI within 10 years.

Without reform, the total cost of SSI and Medicaid benefits for elderly noncitizen immigrants will amount to more than $328 billion over the next decade. The cost of providing SSI and Medicaid benefits for these individuals will reach more than $67 billion a year by the year 2004 (see table).

Even if the rapid increase in the number of elderly noncitizens receiving welfare were to halt and remain at current levels - which is highly unlikely - U.S. taxpayers would still pay more than $127 billion over the next 10 years for SSI and Medicaid benefits for resident aliens.

Professor Matloff found that most elderly immigrants are well aware of U.S. welfare policies and procedures when they arrive here. Besides word of mouth, many receive formal counseling or read publications on how to obtain welfare benefits. For example, "What You Need to Know About Life in America," a Chinese-language publication sold in Taiwan and Hong Kong and in Chinese bookstores in the U.S., includes a 36-page guide to SSI and other welfare benefits. The largest-circulation Chinese-language newspaper in America, World Journal, runs a regular "Dear Abby"-style advice column on SSI and other immigration-related matters.

Prudent restrictions on providing welfare to recent immigrants long have been part of the American tradition. America's first immigration law, passed by Congress in 1882, prohibited the entry of paupers and others who were likely to become public charges. Similar restrictions have appeared in subsequent immigration laws. Today, the Immigration and Nationality Act declares unequivocally "Any alien who, within five years after the date of entry, has become a public charge from causes not affirmatively shown to have arisen since entry is not deportable." This provision of the law is routinely ignored.

Although many elderly immigrants on SSI come from politically oppressive nations, such as Cuba and the former Soviet Union, the majority do not. The single greatest number of resident aliens on SSI comes from Mexico. Other nations, such as the Dominican Republic, India, South Korea and the Philippines, also contribute large numbers of recipients.

The presence of large numbers of elderly immigrants on welfare is a violation of the spirit, and arguably the letter, of U.S. immigration law. The relatives who sponsored the entry of these individuals implicitly promised that the new immigrants would not become a burden to U.S. taxpayers. But many, if not most, sponsors are enrolling their elderly relatives on welfare soon after the end of the three-year waiting period. Once on SSI, there is every indication that these immigrants will remain on welfare indefinitely.

Just as Americans expect an absent parent to pay child support for his children, so they also must expect individuals who voluntarily bring elderly and near-elderly relatives to the U.S. to support those relatives fully. This obligation to support should be permanent and should not be limited to three or five years, as under current law. Under no circumstances should the cost of supporting elderly immigrants be passed on to general taxpayers.

To rectify the situation, dramatic changes in both the current welfare system and immigration policy will be required. First, eligibility for SSI and Medicaid should be restricted to U.S. citizens. Then, to prevent a huge number of elderly immigrants from simply applying for U.S. citizenship so they can qualify for welfare, elderly and near-elderly foreigners should in the future be permitted to enter the U.S. only as guests of American relatives who sponsor them. Such elderly "guests" would not have the option of becoming citizens and thereby becoming a future burden on the U.S. taxpayer. They should be supported permanently by the relatives who sponsored their entry.

Since immigration and citizenship automatically give access to the U.S. welfare system, the only real mechanism for reducing the growth in the number of elderly immigrants on welfare is to reduce the number of such immigrants who enter the U.S. with the option of eventually becoming citizens.

Immigration should be open to individuals who wish to come to the U.S. to work hard and have the capacity to support themselves. Immigration should not be an avenue to welfare dependency. □

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