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Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 was concerned primarily with strengthening the prevention of terrorism in the United States and imposing the death penalty for acts of terrorism. The act sets out criteria for the exclusion of foreign-born persons who are members of terrorist organizations and precludes asylum for them. The act broadens the range of offenses for federal prosecution, permits faster deportation procedures (for nonviolent crimes), and authorizes state and local police to arrest illegal immigrants.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 has several features of great importance for U.S. immigrants. First and foremost, during the first five-years of their residence in the United States, it restricts access to and use of public assistance programs for legal immigrants who are not citizens. It also bars noncitizen immigrants who have been here for more than five-years from some federal welfare programs. It thus increases the incentive for permanent-resident aliens, especially poorer ones, to apply for naturalization after the requisite five-years because citizenship is a prerequisite for welfare eligibility. The act also sets a lifetime limit of five-years on the use of public assistance by any individual—a restriction that applies not just to legal immigrants but to all residents.
The exclusion of immigrants from public programs is not without precedent. For example, before current welfare reforms, some permanent residents whose entry was family-based had part of their sponsor's income taken into account in determining eligibility for three federal assistance programs—Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and food stamps) in their first three-years in the United States (the first five-years for SSI). (The sponsor is the person who promised to provide support for the immigrant as part of the immigration process.) Until the early 1950s, most Asian Americans who were foreign-born could not become naturalized citizens and so they could not vote or, in some states, own land. In another situation, Mexicans who came to the United States under the Bracero Program were not eligible for citizenship, nor could they apply for state or federal public assistance programs. Until an immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen, he or she does not have the right to vote. Finally, the Constitution provides that no immigrant can become president of the United States. Although always part of the national dialogue on immigration, the extent to which distinctions should be made between the native-born and the foreign-born has become an increasingly intense part of the debate.
Background to Immigration Numbers
Immigration affects the size, composition, and distribution of populations, at any particular time and also, with continued immigration, over time. From a policy perspective, it is important to distinguish between flows and stocks of immigrants. Flows refer to people moving into the United States over a given period of time—say, the number of people admitted in calendar year 1990, as