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The 1996 federal welfare reform law introduced, among other things, broad restrictions on immigrants' eligibility for many health and social service programs, including cash welfare assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF]), food stamps, and subsidized health insurance. Caseloads for welfare and other benefit programs have fallen dramatically in the wake of welfare reform (see the Introduction to this volume), but the declines have been steeper for immigrants than for native-born citizens (Fix and Passel 1999) even when immigrant families remain eligible for assistance. Indeed, most (80 percent) children in immigrant families, having been born here, are U.S. citizens, and are therefore eligible for government assistance on the same basis as all other U.S. citizens (Hernandez 2004). This phenomenon, which has been called the “chilling effect,” is thought to reflect immigrants' confusion about their eligibility for assistance or their fear that benefit use will adversely affect their chances for citizenship or even their opportunity to reenter or stay in this county (Capps 2001; Fix and Passel 1999; Maloy et al. 2000). For example, parents who are not citizens may not be aware of their U.S.-born children's eligibility for important benefits or may face other administrative barriers to accessing programs after leaving welfare. This is a particular problem among low-income parents with low education, as this population has a high proportion of noncitizen parents (Hernandez 2004).
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