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Be Fair to Immigrant Taxpayers

Commentary
June 1, 2002By Michael Leachman

Would it be fair if you were required to pay taxes, but banned from receiving public services? That’s exactly the situation of hard-working taxpayers who have legally moved to the U.S. from another country in the last five years.

These are people who have done everything by the book. They are following the American Dream. They’ve come here hoping for a better life for themselves and for their children.

When legal immigrants arrive in the U.S. and find work, they pay the same taxes as everyone else. Their sons must register with the Selective Service and respond to the draft in wartime. In past wars, immigrants have served America - their chosen homeland - with distinction. We trusted immigrants to protect the United States with their lives, and they did.

Despite this, in 1996 Congress told recent legal immigrants that, while their tax and Selective Service obligations would remain equal to American citizens, they would no longer have equal access to public services. Among other things, recent immigrants lost access to federal money spent through Medicaid (the Oregon Health Plan) and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides job training and cash assistance.

Now, if legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years get sick, they can’t get the Oregon Health Plan. Moreover, if a recent immigrant’s employer downsizes, the immigrant family cannot get federally-funded temporary cash assistance to carry them over to the next job.

Oregon has managed to scrape together enough state tax dollars to provide job training and temporary cash assistance to those immigrants no longer eligible for federal help. If the federal government would share the costs, some of those state dollars could go to other unmet needs. The State has not made up for the loss of federal Medicaid benefits. That means Oregon children whose families have recently immigrated to the U.S. cannot get ongoing medical care, outside of what their parents can afford to provide.

These issues are increasingly important to Oregon’s future. Unlike in the past, Oregon is now attracting substantial numbers of immigrants. Over the 1990s, the legal immigrant population in Oregon grew by 109,000, a nearly 80 percent increase. More and more, Oregon’s efforts to help children in poor families require finding ways to help immigrant families succeed. Nearly one in five low-income children in Oregon are either non-citizens themselves or live with parents who are not yet citizens.

Right now, Congress is deciding whether to restore equal access to immigrant taxpayers. Regrettably, the best bills restore only part of what Congress took away six years ago. Bills circulating in the Senate would allow states to offer federally funded temporary cash assistance and job training to all legal immigrants, and offer legal immigrant children and pregnant women access to federally-funded Medicaid assistance.

Oregon’s delegation should support, and Congress should pass, these modest restorations. It’s only fair.

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