working-age populations or on households; none has focused on children. The issue is whether immigrants' needs represent a disproportionate burden on federal funds relative to those of comparable natives. This chapter focuses on public assistance receipt by native and immigrant Mexican and Cuban American children and their families compared with children in white native families using data collected from 1990 to 1995 in a nationally representative survey that oversampled Mexican and Cuban American families.
Even prior to the passage of PRWORA, the context for the current study, many immigrants were, in fact, ineligible for public assistance benefits. Undocumented immigrants were eligible only for such things as emergency medical care and the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental program (WIC; Fix and Passel, 1994). Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala account for more than half of all illegal immigrants today and 80 percent of those legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Immigrants who legalized their status under IRCA were barred from receiving public assistance for five years. Additionally, if legal permanent residents applied for public assistance programs during their first three years in the United States, their sponsor's income was to be included in determining eligibility. As a result, many legal permanent residents were not eligible.
Because of the circumstances under which they arrived in the United States, usually with no money or provisions, refugees have had greater access to special assistance for their first five years here than nonrefugees. While refugees comprise only about 10 percent of immigrants in a given year, they constitute a substantial proportion of some immigrant groups, such as Cubans, Eastern Europeans, and Southeast Asians (Fix and Passel, 1994).
Limitations on public assistance make it likely that immigrants receive some types but not others. Refugees and elderly immigrants have high rates of participation in Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), for example (Fix and Passel,