Credit: jvoves-flickr

At the urging of his triangulating strategist Dick Morris, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was signed by President Clinton in August 1996. During his 1992 campaign, Clinton had repeated his intention to “end welfare as we know it” like a mantra. The Republicans, who took over joint control of Congress in 1995 for the first time since the early 1950’s, responded by giving him draconian versions of welfare reform which he vetoed. But he was convinced that he needed to keep his promise so he called the Republicans’ bluff and signed PRWORA into law. It was the second of three harshly anti-immigrant bills Clinton signed in 1996 as he fought for his reelection. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act became law in April. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) became effective on September 30.

All three bills were notable not just for their aggressiveness towards illegal immigrants but for their collective effect on legal permanent residents, or green card holders. Suddenly, green card holders were ineligible for food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Medicaid. They couldn’t participate in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and Aid to Families with Dependent Children was eliminated in favor of Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF. Permanent legal residents weren’t eligible for TANF, either.

Clinton’s approval of PRWORA led to some resignations at the Department of Health & Human Services, including longtime family friend Peter Edelman. It also led to a widespread feeling among legal permanent residents that they were vulnerable. Prior to this wave of anti-immigration law, many foreign-born people in business and academia lived and raised their children in the United States without much thought of becoming citizens. It’s true that they couldn’t vote, but they otherwise lived lives that were indistinguishable from their neighbors. In the aftermath of 1996, there was a large rush among this class of people to start the naturalization process even though few of them had ever relied on government programs like Medicaid or Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

In progressive circles, welfare reform was generally opposed, but the provisions on legal permanent residents were seen as the most egregious and unforgivable aspects of PRWORA. The administration acknowledged the flaws in the bill but repeatedly promised to fix them in the years ahead.

[Health and Human Services Secretary Donna] Shalala herself had been a tenacious critic of the welfare bill, but she argued to angry liberals in recent weeks that they needed to support Mr. Clinton so he could fight for changes in the legislation.

“I promise you this, on behalf of the President,” she told delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, “that this bill will be changed and that this bill will be improved in the years ahead until we get it right for American families.”

[UPDATE: Clinton did attempt to keep his promise, but with modest results. In The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 he was able to grandfather back SSI coverage for legal permanent residents who had lived here before 1996. Those thus eligible for SSI were also eligible for Medicaid. In the 1998 Agriculture bill, eligibility for food stamps for children, the elderly and the disabled were similarly grandfathered in for people who had been eligible prior to welfare reform. In 2002, President Bush “reinstated access to food stamps for legal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years, as well as for immigrant children without requiring the residency criteria be met. Bush also effectively restored food stamps to refugees.”]

I bring this history up now because it was very controversial at the time to create a new system in law whereby legal permanent residents were treated as a problem that needed to be addressed. In some sense, they had also been in a second class, since they were not technically citizens. But they felt welcome here prior to 1996, and a decision to become a citizen was more of a personal than a practical decision. Few of these people were actually impacted by the laws that were enacted in 1996, but those laws definitely changed how they felt about their place in our society.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court effectively ruled that non-citizens, both legal and illegal, can be detained indefinitely without judicial review.

Many people will rightfully focus on how this might impact illegal immigrants, just as most of the focus on Clinton’s welfare reform focused on the people who would lose benefits and the children who would suffer. But, we should ask ourselves what kind of message this will send to green card holders too. Will professors and researchers be as eager to work in America when they know that they can be Gitmoed? Will skilled workers choose America over Australia or Canada or the United Kingdom?

Once again, we’ve let a wave of anti-immigrant feeling grow out of control without really considering all the implications.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at