Immigration enthusiasts love to tout the entrepreneurial success stories of a few world-class newcomers who become millionaires in America. Good for them.

Alas, the more common story isn’t so rich or uplifting. The path of many immigrants – both recent and long-term – follows a darker Dickensian line, with its sharpest edges softened by the ministrations of our modern-day welfare state.

Among the findings of a new report:

  • 63 percent of households headed by a non-citizen said they used at least one welfare program, compared with 35 percent of native-headed households.
  • Non-citizen households had much higher use of food programs (45 percent vs. 21 percent for natives) and Medicaid (50 percent vs. 23 percent for natives).
  • Significantly, welfare use tends to be high for both newer arrivals and long-time residents. Of households headed by non-citizens in the U.S. for fewer than 10 years, 50 percent use one or more welfare programs; for those here more than 10 years, the rate rises to 70 percent.
  •  “Non-citizens” include illegal immigrants, long-term temporary visitors like guest workers, and permanent residents who have not naturalized.

“While barriers to welfare use exist for these groups, it has not prevented them from making extensive use of the welfare system, often receiving benefits on behalf of U.S.-born children,” according to the Center for Immigration Studies report that examined data from 2014.

Chronic welfare dependency by non-citizens makes a case for the Trump administration’s proposed reform of “public charge” rules. The revisions seek to strengthen guidelines governing the granting of lawful permanent residence (green cards) to immigrants using, or likely to use, welfare programs.

“Although most immigrants work, a large share have low levels of education resulting in low incomes — the primary reason so many access the welfare system,” said Steven Camarota, CIS’s director of research and the report’s lead author. “Either we select future immigrants unlikely to need welfare by emphasizing skills and education, or we accept the welfare burden that comes from our current immigration system.”

Though the left may decry public-charge reforms — even as the progressive media applaud independent, entrepreneurial immigrants — self-sufficiency guidelines have been a fixture of federal immigration law since 1882. It’s time for an update.

As FAIR put it recently: “The fact that the American welfare system is already overburdened is not only an argument for enforcing the public charge regulations, but also a reason for moving the nation to a more merit-based immigration system.”

In this season of giving, we would do well to remember John F. Kennedy’s admonition to all who call America home: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Bob Dane, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)'s Executive Director, has been with FAIR since 2006.

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