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Children Of Immigrants Less Likely To Get Benefits

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Children Of Immigrants Less Likely To Get Benefits

Children Of Immigrants Less Likely To Get Benefits

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Pew Hispanic study also found that the children of illegal immigrants are almost twice as likely to live in poverty. In fact, other studies have found that all children living in immigrant families, legal or illegal, are more likely to be poor than those whose parents were born in the U.S. At the same time, these children are far less likely to receive public benefits. NPR's Pam Fessler has the latest installment of our series, Immigrants' Children.

PAM FESSLER: When I met 21-year-old Adriana, she looked tired and worried. She was a few days away from giving birth to her third child. She already had two little boys, ages one and three.

(Soundbite of baby)

FESSLER: Their father had left them months before. And she was homeless. Adriana had come to CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit agency outside Washington D.C., for help. She and her children had been sleeping in the streets, although the night before, strangers took them in after seeing them out in the cold. As Adriana spoke, her youngest son ran around the room swinging his bottle. He wore one-piece pajamas over a turtleneck shirt.

ADRIANA: (Through translator) She's saying, well, today I really need somebody to help me out. The family who helped me yesterday, they can no longer help me, and I have no place where to sleep with my kids tonight.

FESSLER: Caseworker Elizabeth Flores says the young woman tried to get housing, food stamps and medical help at local social service agencies. But without a passport, proof of residency or birth certificate for one of her sons, she wasn't having much luck.

Ms. ELIZABETH FLORES (Caseworker): Well, she's living nowhere. So basically she has no address. So they tell her she can't apply.

FESSLER: Adriana's case is complicated by the fact that she's an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Her children were born here and are citizens. But like many children of immigrants, they don't receive the public assistance for which they're eligible. There are many reasons for this. Some, like Adriana, don't have the necessary paperwork. Caseworker Flores says that many immigrants in the country illegally also worry about contacting any government agency, even to help their children.

Ms. FLORES: They don't feel comfortable going there. They are afraid because they have no documents.

FESSLER: It's a common problem. Jonathan Blazer, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center says undocumented immigrants are not supposed to be reported when they apply for benefits for their children. In fact, the Agriculture Department, which administers food stamps, makes that point in its brochures. But he adds...

Mr. JONATHAN BLAZER (Attorney, National Immigration Law Center): That has not stopped some benefit agencies from threatening to report. And we're living in a hostile time, in a period of historic anti-immigrant hostility. And I think that hostility gets reflected within benefit agencies, as well.

FESSLER: Blazer says the fears also extend to legal immigrants. Some of them worry that their children's use of benefits, such as food stamps and health coverage, could jeopardize their own legal status or prevent them from becoming citizens, that they'll be considered a public charge.

Mr. BLAZER: This is not true, but many parents would rather play it safe than sorry.

FESSLER: It's no wonder immigrants are wary and confused. Eligibility rules often differ from state to state and program to program. And the issue is closely tied to an immigration debate where distinctions are frequently blurred.

Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): What we don't want is an unintended consequence of attracting people here that can come to get on the government dole.

FESSLER: That's Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada earlier this year. He was talking about a plan to lift the five-year waiting period before low income immigrant children can receive government health insurance. Like other opponents, he said he was worried about the long-term costs.

Sen. ENSIGN: You know how many women bear children in this country? They come over here because the incentive is there. They know, one, they can get citizenship for their children. So they come across the border. We have incentives that people take advantage of to come into this country.

FESSLER: But the proposed change later adopted didn't apply to the children Ensign referred to. Anyone born in the U.S. is a citizen and their eligibility was never in question. Still, immigrant advocates say such restrictions do have a chilling effect on immigrant families. When Congress overhauled welfare in 1996 and imposed a five-year waiting period before legal immigrants could receive public assistance, immediately there was a big drop in food stamp participation by the citizen children of immigrants, even though their eligibility hadn't changed.

Ms. GLORIA RAMOS (Baltimore HealthCare Access): Okay, senora?

FESSLER: In the tight quarters of a mobile medical van in downtown Baltimore, Gloria Ramos works on an undocumented immigrant's application to get health insurance for her citizen children. Ramos is with Baltimore HealthCare Access, a nonprofit group that tries to make sure immigrants get the benefits for which they're entitled.

Ms. RAMOS: They get very nervous. They don't really know the process. And so for a lot of them it's very intimidating to complete an application.

FESSLER: Ramos says language is a big barrier. So she helps non-English speakers navigate the bureaucracy. She also tries to dispel a lot of myths.

Ms. RAMOS: People believe that if they ask for a particular type of service from the government, that their child will have to repay back what was given to them from the government.

FESSLER: She assures them that this isn't true. Immigrant advocates say more such outreach programs are needed. About half of all children of immigrants now live in low-income families. Kathy Westcoat, president of Baltimore HealthCare Access, says there could be a big price to pay down the road, one reason her group has started offering prenatal care to undocumented immigrant women.

Ms. KATHY WESTCOAT (President, Baltimore HealthCare Access): These are American-born children who are going to likely be on the Medicaid program. So, you know, if think about this, if a woman goes without prenatal care, that baby is much more likely to be born with problems and the Medicaid program or the taxpayers ultimately have to pay more.

FESSLER: But it's a difficult case to make — that it's better to spend money now rather than later — especially in tough economic times. Meanwhile, back at CASA de Maryland, Elizabeth Flores and her colleagues are still trying to help Adriana and her children. She now has another U.S. citizen - a new baby girl.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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