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A reader recently sent us a Facebook post with "10 Illegal Alien Facts." One of them was, "Less than 2 percent of illegals are picking crops, but 41 percent are on welfare."
We’ll examine each part of the claim.
"Less than 2 percent of illegals are picking crops"
Farming has traditionally been a common occupation for immigrants from Mexico and other countries south of the U.S. border, including many who are here illegally.
According to figures compiled in 2005 by the Pew Hispanic Center from Census Bureau data, 19 percent of farming, fishing and forest workers were illegal immigrants -- the highest proportion of any broad employment category Pew studied.
But as a share of all the jobs held by illegal immigrants in the country, farming does indeed represent a small percentage.
About 3 percent of illegal immigrants were working in farming and related sectors, according to Pew, which was well below the percentage working in service occupations (33 percent), construction and extractive jobs (17 percent), production, installation and repair (16 percent) and transportation and moving (8 percent). A subsequent Pew study pegged the number working in farming and related sectors slightly higher, at 4 percent.
Steven A. Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors stricter immigration laws, said it’s possible that during peak harvesting times, as many as 5 percent of the U.S. illegal immigrant population is working in agriculture. But in general, the statistics involving illegal immigrants are, not surprisingly, tricky to pin down. So we think that saying that "less than 2 percent of illegals are picking crops" is reasonably accurate.
"41 percent (of illegal immigrants) are on welfare"
This half of the statement is more problematic.
The most detailed statistics we found were from Camarota’s group. In a 2007 report, the center published a table titled, "Welfare Use for Illegal Alien-Headed Households." The table reported that 40 percent of illegal immigrant-headed households used any "major welfare" program in the previous calendar year. The percentage was even higher in illegal-immigrant headed households that included children: a whopping 71 percent, according to a a 2011 report by the center.
So there is some basis for the 40 percent figure. However, it’s important to keep two bits of context in mind:
• This statistic addresses households headed by an illegal immigrant. However, many of these households include American citizens within the family, often children who were born in the United States and who received citizenship at birth. Indeed, given the web of restrictions on the granting of government benefits to illegal immigrants, most of the "welfare" benefits being counted in the CIS table are going to citizen children, not to adult illegal immigrants. Indeed, the government is responsible for checking the immigration status of people receiving benefits.
It’s true that some types of benefits, such as food stamps, can be shared among all members of a family. An illegal immigrant, for instance, may end up eating food bought with a citizen relative’s food stamps. Still, the Facebook post’s phrasing -- that 41 percent of illegal immigrants are on welfare -- is misleading because it ignores that the benefits in question are generally going to American citizens.
• We suspect that when many people hear the term "welfare," they think of cash benefits. However, very little cash assistance is going to illegal immigrants. According to CIS, less than 1 percent of illegal-immigrant-headed households included anyone receiving direct government cash assistance, such as Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or state-run cash aid. This is not surprising: Illegal immigrants are generally barred from receiving such payments.
Instead, the kind of "welfare" these households received were primarily one of two types: health care or food.
In all, 27 percent of such households received coverage from Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor, while 33 percent received food assistance, such as free or reduced-price school lunches, food stamps, or benefits from the Women-Infants-Children program (WIC). As noted earlier, many of the recipients of these programs were actually citizen children of illegal immigrants. Few illegal immigrants received housing benefits, the other major category of assistance from the government, CIS found.
Medicaid and food assistance certainly qualify as government benefits, and they cost the taxpayers money. But it’s less clear that they fit the commonly understood definition of "welfare."
The Facebook post’s first claim, that "less than 2 percent of illegals are picking crops," is close to correct. The post’s second claim, that "41 percent (of illegal immigrants) are on welfare" is misleading. Most of the "welfare" benefits in question are going to U.S. citizens who live in illegal immigrant households, not directly to illegal immigrants, and very little of it comes in cash form, which is the traditional definition of "welfare." On balance, we rate the claim Mostly False.
Facebook post, "10 Illegal Alien Facts"
Pew Hispanic Center, "Background Briefing Prepared for Task Force on Immigration and America's Future," June 14, 2005
Pew Hispanic Center, "Unauthorized Immigrant Population: National and State Trends, 2010," Feb. 1, 2011
Center for Immigration Studies, "Welfare Use by Immigrant Households with Children: A Look at Cash, Medicaid, Housing, and Food Programs," April 2011
Center for Immigration Studies, "Immigrants in the United States, 2007: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population," November 2007
U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Non-Citizen Requirements in the Food Stamp Program," Jan. 2003
Interview with Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, June 18, 2012
Email interview with Kevin R. Johnson, dean of the University of California (Davis) School of Law, June 18, 2012
Email interview with Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, June 18, 2012
Email interview with Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, June 18, 2012
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