Thursday, June 20, 2024

The real problem with immigration and welfare

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As an advocate for freedom in immigration, one of the objections to my position I hear most often is: “immigrants abuse the welfare state by taking from a system they haven’t contributed to.” 

This objection relies largely on a myth. Demagogues make it sound as if immigrants have virtually unrestricted eligibility to welfare, comparable to native-born Americans. But immigrants’ eligibility for welfare programs is much more limited than most people think. Legal immigrants aren’t eligible for means-tested federal welfare until after they’ve had a green card for five years. Illegal immigrants are not eligible at all, except for emergency Medicaid. (At the state level, access to welfare varies depending on the state.) 

My question to those who make that objection is: are you concerned with people taking the unearned, or are you scapegoating immigrants? If, like me, you’re concerned about the former, then the objection should be directed at the welfare state itself and entitlement-minded recipients demanding the handouts– not at the many immigrants seeking to earn their own way. 

By definition, the welfare state takes money from those who earn it to give it to those who don’t—whether they’re immigrants or native-born Americans. Welfare is a confiscation of money based on need. In a welfare state, the productive are made to sustain others with their own money—the productive sacrifice for the unproductive. 

No one “earns” welfare—neither immigrants nor native-born Americans. Think of Social Security: The checks that elderly people collect every month are the result of the confiscation of money taken right now from the younger, working population—not the money they themselves were made to put in during their working years.

The immigrants-abuse-welfare objection ignores the fundamental injustice of the welfare state. When the concern is genuinely about people taking the unearned, that must apply to every individual who does so, native-born or not. 

To think about this issue properly, we need to abandon collectivized evaluations and recognize the nature of the welfare state.  My approach to this issue is influenced by Ayn Rand, who provided a uniquely individualistic, moral perspective on the welfare state and its recipients.

Consider a grandma who was forced to fund Social Security, who opposed this injustice, and who worked to earn her own way in life, including by trying to provide for her own retirement. It is only an individual like her who can morally justify collecting welfare, as partial restitution. It is not her fault she was put in this position and shouldn’t be judged as a “moocher.”  But if she endorsed the welfare system, clamoring for the unearned, she has no moral right to a penny – and she’s complicit in the system’s injustice. The same holds true whether grandma was born in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires. The basic injustice is inherent in the welfare system itself. 

It’s telling that many who bring up the immigrants-abuse-welfare objection evade the injustice perpetrated by the welfare system and they’re conspicuously quiet about those native-born welfare recipients – including the elderly, single mothers, the unemployed, and others – who demand ever more handouts. Instead, we hear a relentless collective judgment of all immigrants. This calls into question what animates such opposition to immigration. 

But we’ve all seen the photos and videos from New York City: hundreds of migrants being housed in hotels, receiving food and shelter at the staggering expense of the taxpayer. Isn’t that a problem specific to immigrants, and not an issue with native-born Americans? 

Partially yes, and it’s a problem created by the local and federal governments. Part of the crisis is a result of the local government having an unfair law mandating that anyone who’s homeless (whether native-born or not) should be helped (the “right to shelter” law). Worsening the situation, the federal government doesn’t  allow these migrants to work legally. Because of work restrictions in the immigration system, it takes months and a lot of complex paperwork to get a work permit. While waiting, all migrants, including those who’ve come to America make their own way, are barred from working (or they can do so illegally, usually at below market price and on a limited pool of occupations). 

The issue of immigrants and welfare is not fundamentally about immigration, but about the welfare state. The debate on this topic is distorted. The broader injustice of the welfare state is obscured, while the immigrants-abuse-welfare objection is used to push for limits on immigration. 

If you truly are against people seeking the unearned, you should direct your anger at the welfare state and those who help perpetuate it, not at immigrants collectively. And if you want a straight-forward interim solution to newly-arrived migrants taking welfare, demand that Washington let them work.

Agustina Vergara Cid is an associate fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @agustinavcid

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