The crisis at the border brought on by thousands of young people seeking entry, some with a parent and many without, has fueled an immigration debate that was already overheated.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly took the government’s ad hoc measures to stanch the influx and deal with those who are already here as proof of a broader problem with immigrants from Central America, particularly those from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
"Our welfare system is strained to the limit now, so is the public school system," O’Reilly said on his July 8, 2014, show The O’Reilly Factor. "About 50 percent of them lack a high school education. And more than 50 percent of immigrants from those three countries use at least one major welfare program once they get here. So the Obama administration is allowing millions of people to come in without the skills to compete in the marketplace. That is creating an underclass."
A reader asked us to dig into the claim that more than 50 percent of the people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras use at least one welfare program.
We asked O’Reilly’s show for the sources behind that statement and did not hear back. But a little before his program, the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for lower immigration levels, released a fact sheet with the numbers O’Reilly used.
"57 percent of households headed by immigrants from El Salvador use at least one major welfare program, as do 54 percent of Honduran households, and 49 percent of Guatemalan immigrant households. Among native households it is 24 percent," the fact sheet said.
The publication relied on Census Bureau data, which counted "welfare" programs as including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP), Medicaid, free and reduced school lunches, Supplemental Security Income (SSI is for poor elderly, blind or disabled people), housing aid, and the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) food assistance program.
We should note that several of those welfare-type programs are not available to people living here without permission -- including food stamps, TANF, housing subsidies, non-emergency Medicaid and SSI. The fact sheet made no distinction in the legal status of immigrants, nor did O’Reilly.
That aside, immigration researchers we reached said the statistics presented by the Center for Immigration Studies and repeated by O’Reilly are reasonably accurate.
Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University California-Davis, said, "the Center for Immigration Studies probably did it correctly from Current Population Statistics data."
Another economist, Marianne Bitler at the University of California-Irvine, agreed. "My guess is that their analysis is accurate for the family units they describe," Bitler said.
That said, there are a couple of caveats researchers said are worth mentioning.
Bitler noted how programs that help children could cause an entire household to be included in the tally. The Census, Bitler said, "measures whether anyone in the household is getting SNAP, but not whether all residents are getting it. Similarly, I imagine a lot of the Medicaid use they capture is by children."
Leighton Ku, a professor of health policy at George Washington University, gave an example of how this could play out.
"Suppose there is a family where the father is a Central American legal immigrant, a small business owner," Ku said. "The wife is a U.S.-born citizen and their two children are U.S.-born citizens. One young child gets Medicaid or CHIP (health insurance for children), another gets school lunch and that is the only assistance they get. The whole household is now considered an ‘immigrant welfare user.’ "
The result: a higher percentage.
Steven Camarota, the author of the Center for Immigration Studies fact sheet, defends his approach. "It makes sense to calculate welfare by household because eligibility for most programs is based on household income," Camarota said.
Another caveat: This difference in how people coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras use welfare programs depends on the specific program.
Camarota himself noted in a 2012 study that immigrants use cash welfare programs -- TANF, SSI and state cash payments -- at about the same rate as people who were born here.
"Use of cash tends to be quite similar for immigrant and native households," Camarota wrote. "If by ‘welfare’ one only means cash assistance programs, then immigrant use is roughly the same as that of natives." The numbers in that analysis showed 5.4 percent of U.S. natives received such aid, compared to 7.4 percent of Guatemalans, 5.3 percent of Hondurans and 5 percent of Salvadorans.
The gap substantially widens, however, when you include food aid (which included food stamps and free-reduced school lunches) and health care.
O’Reilly said that more than 50 percent of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras use at least one welfare program. That’s correct when looking at households and use a broad definition of "welfare," experts told us. But looking at individuals would produce a different, lower percentage.
Also, there is a wide disparity depending on what particular welfare program you’re looking at.
The statement is accurate but needs additional information. We rate it Mostly True.