For many immigrants, the United States has seemed like a land of bountiful wealth. Traditionally, it has been generous with that wealth, at least in respect to legal immigrants. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that resident aliens are entitled to the same constitutional protections as normal citizens. Resident aliens have been entitled in the past to participate in federal welfare programs on an equal basis with U.S. citizens.
But in 1996, with the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the welfare reform bill, conditions changed dramatically for legal immigrants. As of 2002, legal immigrants face a patchwork of laws in the various states that may or may not give them the right to benefit from various public assistance programs.
By contrast, illegal immigrants are banned from any sort of public assistance under PRWORA, including the very limited services that some states may have chosen to provide them before the act was passed. States giving out public benefits must now verify that immigrants are legal before they receive such benefits. In addition, state and local governments may not restrict their employees from reporting any immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, providing a further disincentive to illegal immigrants in trying to receive benefits. But for legal immigrants, trying to sort out the maze of public benefit regulations has become much more difficult since welfare reform.