Since 1973, some incarnation of Empire Justice Center has been fighting for low income and disenfranchised New Yorkers’ rights. We’ve seen many changes and weathered many storms, including the so-called “welfare reform” of 1996. The advent of the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 brought us the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, for better or for worse. Twenty years later, New York families are still living in poverty. We present to you our perspectives on TANF at 20.
Barbara Weiner, Attorney Emeritus and Celebration of Leadership Honoree, talks about the impact of TANF on immigrants.
In the summer of 1996 Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA), the law that would “change welfare as we know it.” “Personal responsibility” was the catch word of the day, coming before “work opportunity” even in the title, suggesting that accepting the first would inevitably lead to the second. History since then has not borne that out. When the economy falters, regardless of their desire to work, low income people are the first to feel the sting.
At the time PRWORA passed, I was an attorney working with the Greater Upstate Law Project (GULP), predecessor of Empire Justice Center, focusing primarily on housing issues. PRWORA changed all that. I turned back to an earlier area of my practice, public benefits law, but this time with a focus on how PRWORA impacted immigrants in particular.
Elderly and disabled immigrants were hit hardest by PRWORA. With the exception of refugees and other humanitarian based immigrants, the door to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the federal program providing income assistance to low income elderly and disabled people, was slammed shut to immigrants unless and until they became US citizens. Even elderly and disabled refugees were only eligible to receive SSI for a limited time frame. Access to the other federally funded program, food stamps, was also severely restricted. TANF and Medicaid, two programs that both the state and federal government contribute to, barred most immigrants from receiving benefits for the first five years after achieving a qualifying immigration status. After the five year bar expires, states are free to allow qualified immigrants access to one or both programs or to continue the bar.
The benefits eligibility structure enacted through PRWORA was extremely complex, requiring at least a rudimentary understanding of immigration law and an understanding of the meaning of an infinite variety of immigration documents. This was expertise the state benefits agencies charged with administering the federal and state welfare programs were ill equipped to provide. Thus the first impact of the new law was that agency workers often simply turned away immigrants with documents the workers didn’t understand, simply because they weren’t “US citizens” or didn’t have a Social Security card.
Legal services programs, long barred from representing immigrants in immigration matters, but responsible for representing low income clients in their struggle to obtain the benefits that they were entitled to, were also not equipped at first to deal with the complications of immigrant access to benefits resulting from PRWORA’s provisions. As a statewide back-up center, GULP entered into the breach and we began the long road of familiarizing ourselves with the various circumstances immigrants found themselves in, and how they connected to the complicated immigrant eligibility rules of federal and state benefits programs.
I was particularly drawn to this new area, perhaps because I had myself come to the US as an immigrant long ago, and so wanted to dive in. I was given complete freedom by my office to go off in this direction, something rarely encountered these days. Other legal services programs doing public benefits work, particularly in New York City where immigrants comprise a huge portion of the population, began a similar journey.
Thus began our first task… to gain a familiarity with immigration law sufficient to make sense of the immigrant eligibility rules established in PRWORA, and then bring an understanding of those rules to others in our legal service community. I did at least some of my learning by doing – taking on immigration cases, particularly the cases of victims of domestic violence who, if married to an abusive US citizen or lawful permanent resident, had a special path to permanent residence which they could pursue on their own, without the cooperation of their abusive spouse. Once on the way to applying for status on their own, they had access to at least some state public benefits programs.
In the years since PRWORA, we in the legal services community have litigated and advocated with the New York State agencies responsible for administering public benefits programs, all with a view to ensuring the correct application of immigrant eligibility rules and to be as expansive in their application as the law permits. No doubt our greatest victory was with Aliessa v. Novello, the 2001 Court of Appeals decision that made it forever clear that New York State, unlike the federal government, is not free to discriminate among and between lawful immigrants in providing access to state funded public benefits. That principle was recently applied to immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) by the Supreme Court of Erie County in a case called Karamalla v. Devine. People with TPS had long been excluded from access to federal benefits, but we argued in Karamalla that the Court of Appeals had made it very clear that New York State did not have similar authority to exclude them from access to the state’s Safety Net program. The Court emphatically agreed. Although initially OTDA filed an appeal of the Court’s decision, which would have stayed its implementation, we have now received notice that OTDA has withdrawn their appeal. From here on in, needy individuals with TPS are eligible for state funded welfare benefits.
For me personally, these twenty years have brought many challenges, have been sometimes frustrating, but have always been rewarding. Still, more remains to be done to mitigate the damages to needy immigrants brought about by PRWORA.