This anti-immigration legislation displays a philosophy that sees people as liabilities rather than assets. But the truth is that throughout the history of our country we have always benefited from the energy and ambition of immigrants.
In New York City, we have two of our country's most enduring symbols of hope, freedom and opportunity...the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. These monuments are constant reminders of who we are and where we came from.
New York City's large immigrant population has always been a source of our strength. We have become the richest, most successful city in the world because of the energy and drive of immigrants who come here to create better lives for themselves and their children.
The benefit restrictions in the new welfare and immigration laws, however, will have a devastating effect on the individuals, families, and communities who have worked to make our country a success.
Under these new laws, of the total federal savings of $54 billion, $23 billion or 40% of that savings, comes as a result of restricting benefits to immigrants nationwide.
But these laws will not only unfairly target immigrants, they will also have a disproportionate impact for the cities and states across the country.
What the federal government calls "immigration reform" is really just a shifting of massive costs to large cities and states. Seventy-five percent of the resulting costs of these laws will be shouldered by four states -- California, Florida, Texas and New York. These states have close to two-thirds of America's immigrants. They also produce most of America's wealth.
In fact, each year New York City sends to Washington, D.C. many billions of dollars more than it receives in return. New York City's contribution to the national economy in effect subsidizes states like Arkansas, which receives $2.2 billion more a year than it sends back to Washington.
That's just one of the reasons why the federal government's decision to shift massive costs onto New York City is so unjust. As the laws take effect it's projected that in 1997 over 68,000 immigrants in New York City will lose SSI eligibility and over 130,000 will lose eligibility for food stamps. This will result in a loss of over $450 million in 1997 federally funded benefits to formerly eligible immigrants in the city.
All of the people that once depended on the federal government will be abandoned and suddenly it will be left to the states to provide humane and critical assistance.
Because we have a proud history of being generous and compassionate in New York City and New York State, we will not let these immigrants go without the critical assistance they need. But there still exists a question as to the level of general assistance that states can provide to legal immigrants.
To discriminate against legal immigrants is simply unfair. The U.S. accepts some 700,000 immigrants a year. We invite them here to create better lives for themselves and their families, and the overwhelming majority of immigrants take great advantage of their new opportunity.
In return for the privileges of American residency, immigrants pay federal, state, and local taxes at the same rate as American citizens. But under the new laws, legal immigrants are denied disability benefits and food stamps, and states may also refuse them welfare assistance and non-emergency health care.
Withholding these benefits from immigrants, who are here legally and whose taxes help pay for these very programs, is in my opinion, arguably unconstitutional given the broad and sweeping way it is done in this legislation.
Presumably, when Congress enacted the federal welfare reform and immigration laws it was relying on its enumerated power to regulate immigration under the U.S. Constitution. [Article 1, clause iv, "the Congress shall have power... To establish a uniform rule of naturalization.]
We are not contesting that the regulation of immigration is a core function of the federal government. But we do take issue with the fact that Congress has decided to allow these people into the country, has had them pay taxes, and then decides to abandon them.
This raises the question whether Congress in its recent legislation has pushed beyond the limits of its power to regulate immigration. I think there's a strong argument that it has.
Rather than enforcing punitive measures against legal immigrants living in this country, the federal government would be more wise to control the national borders before hand.
So it appears that under the guise of so-called "immigration reform" the federal government is shifting a massive cost to large cities and states in the hopes of trying to balance the budget.
The federal laws will not have a significant effect on the level of either legal or illegal immigration. This is really just an attempt to remove federal funding for vulnerable immigrants who are sick, injured, disabled, or elderly.
Congress has shifted the most significant portion of the expense onto fully participating taxpayers who do not vote. It will be interesting to see how civics classes will teach the portion of the colonial period that led up to the American revolution.
Remember the slogun of the American colonists -- "Taxation without Representation" -- well it's going to be difficult to explain to legal immigrants who pay taxes that this legislation is not in part about taking advantage of them because they don't vote.
Those legal immigrants have precisely the same principled objection to the inequities of this legislation. As the Colonists had to the English inequities of taxes on the Colonies.
The question then becomes: "How far can Congress go in treating immigrants different than citizens before their rights are violated?"
With regard to the provision of services, the Supreme Court has recognized that the federal government may treat immigrants differently than citizens. In Matthews vs. Diaz, however, Justice Stevens explored the extent to which Congress could enforce disparate treatment.
In that case, the Supreme Court discussed a five year residency requirement for immigrants who would have otherwise been eligible for medicare benefits.
The Supreme Court decided that while it may lie within the power of Congress to set residency requirements, when the federal government treats immigrants differently than citizens it is subject to judicial review because legal immigrants are protected under the due process clause of the 5th Amendment.
The clause has always been interpreted to protect persons from unfair government action -- it is expressly not limited to protecting only citizens.
There has to be a limit in how far Congress can go in the name of regulating immigration. To use an extreme case, nobody could defend the argument that under its power to regulate immigration that congress has the right to arrest legal immigrants who are otherwise acting lawfully.
Of course this abuse of power would certainly violate an immigrant's right to due process, but it helps to illustrate the point that in certain instances the way Congress treats immigrants is subject to judicial review.
This brings up the next question, "Just what is the appropriate distinction between the right of citizens and non-citizens and where exactly should that line be drawn?"
In Matthews vs. Diaz the Supreme Court recognized that when Congress passes legislation about eligibility benefits, it has the power to draw lines based on immigration status. However, as a matter of constitutional law, there must be a rational basis for the line that Congress chooses.
As the Court said: ".the party challenging the constitutionality of the particular line Congress has drawn has the burden of advancing principled reasoning that will at once invalidate that line and yet tolerate a different line separating some aliens from others." Matthews vs. Diaz.
In excluding immigrants from food stamps and SSI benefits Congress has drawn no line except at the point of which people become eligible for benefits as a matter of property rights.
For example, with regard to food stamps, more than 130,000 legal immigrants in new york will lose benefits. Congress has drawn no line between the needs of these immigrants. Some may use food stamps to supplement their income, while others may use food stamps to avoid starvation.
Indeed, this action is so overly broad there is no doubt that in some instances the application of the federal legislation will be inhumane.
Similarly, with regard to SSI benefits, 68,000 legal immigrants will lose eligibility. Again, Congress has drawn no line unless if someone has paid in 10 years or 40 quarters, which really is drawing no line at all because the people in that category have already acquired a property right in social security benefits. Once more, Congress enacted an overly broad, sweeping measure.
Many of the people who will be deprived of SSI benefits may have already paid taxes for seven or eight years. And a majority of these people who will be denied ssi benefits may be elderly, blind or disabled... Virtually all were admitted into this country before the rules had changed.
The federal welfare and immigration laws will affect the lives of individuals who have already immigrated here and built a new life for themselves and their families. It's not reasonable for the federal government to suddenly change the terms under which they were accepted into this country.
This kind of scapegoating does not result in a decline, or even control immigration. Rather, it increases human suffering for no justifiable legislative purpose or goal. And in the process it shifts a substantial burden of funding to states and cities that have no authority to deal with the problems of immigration.
The most effective use of Congress' power would focus on a policy that deals with some of the very serious problems of illegal immigration. The federal welfare and immigration laws do not substantially address this issue.
In particular, Congress should encourage the ins to focus its energy and resources on deporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes and endanger the rest of society.
New York City spends approximately 36 million dollars to jail illegal immigrants who are criminals. Of the 4,400 illegal immigrants who pass through the jail system only approximately 160 are deported each year.
It would make more sense for Congress to aid cities and states in the deportation of illegal immigrants who commit crimes, rather than target the legal immigrants who are, for the most part, hard working taxpayers.
If the federal government is serious about stopping illegal immigration it should work diplomatically with other governments and make our national borders more secure.
It should not endanger public safety by recklessly denying critical services to people already here.
Congress should correct the inequities in the bill. The three most glaring inequities are that people are admitted legally by the federal government and taxes are collected from them on an equal basis and then if they encounter difficulties they will be virtually deprived of all benefits without any line being drawn.
The second inequity involves millions of people admitted legally and substantively changes the rules for them after they are here and in many cases immigrants that are too old or too sick can't do anything about it.
And the third inequity is that this shift in funding takes place immediately from the federal government to cities and states. For New York City that will amount to $320 million in lost SSI benefits in FY '98 alone and by FY '2002 it's expected to go up to $400 million.
And even more unfairly 70% of this shift in cost from the federal to state governments is to only four states: California, New York, Florida and Texas.
To cure these inequities we recommend several immediate meaures.
First, we should amend the legislation to grandfather into SSI benefits all the legal immigrants here as of August 22, 1996. As for these people, it is unfair to change the rule after they have already been admitted.
It would also be useful to delay the implementation of the new welfare and immigration laws, as they apply to legal immigrants, for a year. This would give states and cities across the country the time to sort out the problems of this massive cost-shift.
This one year delay would also give immigrants the time they needed to naturalize. Because while we may need to close the door on those who've violated our citizenship laws, we should keep the door open to those who have played by the rules and seek citizenship in the United States.
One of the reasons why we are such a great country is immigrants that come here are self-starters who are often courageous and ambitious. It takes courage and drive to leave your native country and start a new life in a new land.
Immigration has proven to be a powerful force for growth and progress in this country. Yes, there are problems that need to be addressed, especially with illegal immigration.
But we should not be looking for scapegoats amongst the poorest, most vulnerable people in our society, we should be looking for solutions.