Welfare Benefits and Migrant Workers
The problem of migrant workers and their welfare benefits is an example of how migrant workers issue can not be disentangled from human rights issue. As with all other persons, regardless of their nationality, race, legal or other status, that are entitled to fundamental human rights and basic labor protections, all migrant workers and their families are also entitled to certain human rights and protections specifically linked to their vulnerable status.
Among the basic rights of migrant workers is the right to have freedom from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, sex, religion or any other status, in all aspects of work, including in hiring, conditions of work, and promotion, and in access to housing, health care and basic services. Regarding the last few words in the previous sentence, we can state the accessibility of migrant workers to housing, health care and basic services with an umbrella term, the welfare benefits.
Here are some welfare benefits-related rights that migrant workers posses according to the International Convention on the Protection of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families:
- With respect to social security, migrant workers and members of their families shall enjoy in the State of employment the same treatment granted to nationals in so far as they fulfil the requirements provided for by .. applicable legislation....
- Migrant workers and members of their families shall have the right to receive any medical care that is urgently required for the preservation of their life or the avoidance of irreparable harm to their health on the basis of equality of treatment with nationals of the State concerned....
- Each child of a migrant worker shall have the right to a name, to registration of birth and to a nationality...; ... shall have the basic right of access to education on the basis of equality of treatment with nationals of the State concerned...."
The problem with welfare benefits is that many people think that immigrants come to richer countries only to exploit public services. This issue has been a source for heated, long debates in some developed countries, including in America as the number one country that attracts workers from abroad. Let us look at some statistics. According to a long-term research done by The Urban Institute; in 2000, foreign born households accounted for 16% of the welfare caseload and 11% of the total population. Those using welfare at the highest rates include refugees, who often have limited English proficiency and little education, and recently arrived elderly immigrants, who have no work history in the U.S. and therefore do not qualify for Social Security. The gap closes significantly among non-asylee immigrants of working age, and some studies show that they are actually less likely to receive welfare than low-income natives. A similar study in Australia study has also found that immigrants are less likely to be receiving welfare payments than the Australian born.
The situation is of course different for illegal immigrants as they want to hide their presence from the authorities. Any possible contacts with the authorities would be avoided. In the U.S., although undocumented, illegal immigrants are not eligible for public assistance except for emergency medical care under certain program benefits and are, some calculations that were done by The Urban Institute suggest that they are paying five to ten times more in taxes than they are consuming in welfare services.
Even with the fact that low-income immigrants are less likely to claim welfare, the U.S. government still restricts immigrants' welfare rights. According to the 1996 welfare reform bill, only the following applies to eligibility for federal and state funded welfare programs:
- Legal immigrants are barred from all federal means-tested public benefits for five years after entering the country and barred from SSI and food stamps until citizenship. They are also barred from all federal means-tested public benefits for five years.
- Benefits available to immigrants include school lunch and breakfast programs, immunizations, emergency medical services, disaster relief, and others programs that are necessary to protect life and safety as identified by the attorney general, regardless of immigration status.
- Illegal immigrants are barred from the following federal public benefits: grants, contracts, loans, licenses, retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post secondary education, food assistance, and unemployment benefits. States are barred from providing state or locally funded benefits to illegal immigrants unless a state law is enacted granting such authority
Although the previous bill was even stricter, many still think that the current bill tightly restricts migrant workers' human rights. In fact, welfare use also makes it more difficult to bring their relatives into the country, which also serves as an effective deterrent. Some argues that welfare bill that gives too much freedom will bring only bad things for the country and for the natives. People who hold the latter notion forget that in fact, the vast majority of migrants only want to work as hard as possible. Agricultural migrant workers in some states of the U.S. often work 12-13 hours/day, seven days a week during the harvest season. If migrants are living below the national standard or below the poverty line, it is due to low wages, seasonal unemployment, constant job insecurity, and discrimination. Poverty is a global problem, and everyone has a responsibility to resolve that. Schooling for immigrants' children, for example, is not a welfare benefit to an individual child but an essential investment for a brighter future of the mankind.
Moreover, it is important to remember that migrant workers also stimulate local economies by buying services and products (e.g. gas, housing, clothing, food, utilities, etc.). The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has concluded that eventually each immigrant, with his or her descendants paying taxes, will make a net positive contribution to the national budget of $80,000. A study in the UK shows that the foreign-born population contributes around 10% more government revenue than they take in benefits. So, what is the appropriate take home message? We would say that although it is true that migration often creates problem, migration also opens a whole lot opportunities for all.
Fix, Michael & Jeffrey Passel, "Immigration & Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight," The Urban Institute, May 1994.
Tumlin, Karen & Wendy Zimmerman, "Immigrants and TANF: A Look at Immigrant Welfare Recipients in Three Cities," The Urban Institute, October 2003.