Explanation and rationale: Under restrictions imposed by the 1996 welfare law (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA), most immigrants must wait at least five years before they can secure health coverage, nutrition, or temporary cash assistance for needy families. Even after the five-year waiting period, benefitsare extended only to those in a limited range of immigration categories. These categories do not include many of the lawfully present immigrant victims of Katrina, including, for example, many thousands of Hondurans who have been living in Louisiana with temporary protected status (TPS) since Hurricane Mitch struck their homeland. By contrast, current law allows refugees and other immigrants afforded humanitarian treatment to secure such services immediately. Like other humanitarian immigrants, Katrina victims recently have suffered trauma and are in need of immediate assistance to help them get back on their feet. Removing immigrant-related access barriers for disaster victims for benefits purposes during a two-year period will ensure that they can obtain the critical health care, nutrition assistance, and supportive services necessary to resume productive lives. Ensuring access to such services for lawfully present victims of Katrina will help the receiving communities to address their needs as well.
Several states provide assistance in “look-alike” programs to some groups of lawfully residing immigrants otherwise subject to the five-year bar. However, they must do so using state-only funds. Given the burdens that states already will assume in serving victims of Katrina, they should be have access to federal funds to assist these lawfully residing immigrants.
The “public charge” test ordinarily imposed against immigrants seeking to adjust status is similarly intended to discourage immigrants from becoming dependent on the government for their support. Like the five-year bar, its application would be inapt under these circumstances, in which so many victims have lost their jobs, possessions, and livelihood. Immigrant victims of Katrina must be able to utilize temporary assistance without fear that participation in the program will hamper their immigration status by making them a “public charge.” There is precedent for such clarification where compelling reasons exist to get immediate benefits to persons in great need. For example, battered immigrant victims of domestic violence can use public benefits without fear of public charge. See 8 USC 1182(s).