Welfare Racism: Playing the Race Card Against America's Poor
To reduce the number of poor people of color migrating to the United
States, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation
Act of 1996 (PRWORA) made both legal and illegal "aliens" ineligible
for most federal programs. Illegal aliens were declared ineligible for
temporary Assistance for Needy Families; legal aliens were deemed not
eligible until five years after they entered the United States. It was
also stipulated that the individual states and public housing agencies
were to report names, addresses, and other pertinent information regarding
non-citizen recipients to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Clearly the Act was intended to serve a major control function.
When it comes to race population control policies the avoidance of overtly racist language by racial state actors is necessary. The passage of legislation to implement such policies typically requires that the racial sentiment upon which they are based remain camouflaged or out of sight. Consequently, what are essentially racial arguments tend to be couched in cultural rather than biological terms. ... That is, the "race card" can be simultaneously payed and denied. The racial contours of welfare policies aimed at keeping "aliens" out of the country are clearly visible, however, in the writings of some conservative policy analysts. Nowhere was this racial sentiment communicated more clearly than in the writings of Peter Brimelow, author of "Alien Nation", a book extremely critical of U.S. immigration policy.
In that book, Brimelow expresses concern that immigration is bringing about an unprecedented racial and ethnic transformation of U.S. society. His ultimate nightmare is, as he put it, "the fateful day when American whites actually cease to be a majority." Brimelow expresses concern also with what he sees as the tendency of recent immigrants to join the welfare rolls.
In December 1999, a group of legal aid attorneys filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Human Rights, claiming that welfare agencies in the Los Angeles County area were denying job training and other services to welfare recipients who did not speak English. While in this particular case the county's welfare-to-work was said to be capable of handling Spanish-speaking people, it was not meeting the language needs of those many other languages - including families from Cambodia and Vietnam.
Insofar as it did not provide forms and other written materials in languages that recipients could understand, bilingual translator or interpreter services, language-accessible training and education programs, and bilingual providers of county welfare services such as child care and mental health assessment, the county's Department of Public Social Services was said to be engaged in language discrimination. The latter has been interpreted by federal courts as a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If Non-English speaking welfare recipients do not get necessary support services and receive them in a timely manner because of language discrimination, they are impeded in their efforts to join the labor market. ... We noted earlier that exercising racial control over "Who is there?" on the basis of punitive welfare reform policies is unlikely to keep immigrants of color from coming to the United States or get them to leave. But under the PRWORA, many thousands of immigrant families have lost crucial benefits, ranging from cash assistance to food stamps to health care. Their suffering simply makes them more economially desperate and vulnerable to labor exploitation. This is true not only of states like California, where there are large and heavily concentrated populations of immigrants of color, but wherever such immigrants have tried to settle.
In 1997, Wisconsin implemented a work-based assistance program - "Wisconsin Works" or W-2, that offered eligible recipients who faced barriers to employment up to two years of job training and work experience to help them make a transition off the welfare rolls. Most of the Hmong families in the Wisconsin study contained two parents...the vast majority of Hmong welfare recipients were found to have caseworkers who were incapable of communicating with them in person or by phone. Recipients also had to contend with English forms they could not understand. ...When interviewed, a third revealed that their families had run out of food in the previous six months, and almost 90 percent said they could not afford to buy clothing for family members. Under Wisconsin's welfare rules, these families were set to lose all cash assistance shortly because of the state's two-year limit for benefits.
In response to publicity about the plight of the Hmong, Wisconsin state officials quickly went on the counter-attack, declaring the research by the Institute for Wisconsin's Future to be faulty and politically biassed. Newspaper reports however, subsequently indicated that Wisconsin's welfare program had actually been under Office of Civil Rights (OCR) review for possible civil rights violation since 1998. In late 2000, the OCR concluded that violations did occur and that as a result, Hmong clients lost or were denied benefits. Federal officials announced that they would work with the state to develop a voluntary plan to prevent unlawful practises that harmed language minorities such as the Hmong. The Hmong situation is but one in a growing list of examples of language discrimination and other forms of mistreatment of immigrants of color around the nation.
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