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Why Not Reward Immigrant Work?

Ilana Novick

The latest version of immigration reform proposes a long and winding road to citizenship, including a "Registered Provisional Immigrant" status nearly 11 million immigrants will fall under should the bill pass. Many of those 11 million new almost-Americans will need access to the same kinds of social services and financial assistance programs that existing low-income Americans are elligible for, including the Earned Income Tax Credit. 

The "Gang of Eight" senators who spearheaded the bill were split this week over whether RPIs should be EITC elligible. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), an opponent of immigration reform, proposed an amendment to the immigration bill that would bar RPIs from receiving the credit. Senators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) broke with Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who supported Session's amendment. 
While the new bill still passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, Session's amendment and Graham and Flake's support may be a sign of further hurdles over just how much assistance the government is willing to give these provisional legal immigrants, and Sessions argued that “EITC is generally available to anyone who has a Social Security number and many are abusing that today we’ve discovered but as these RPIs are established and get a Social Security number, they will qualify it appears under the law for Earned Income Tax Credit” and that our already stretched federal budget can't handle it. 
Senator Schumer argued that because RPIs will be paying taxes, they have just as miuch of a right to the EITC as any American citizen: "They’re paying into the system. They’re paying taxes. They’re doing everything like another citizen, and so it’s questionable whether they should be excluded from EITC. It’s a value choice."
The right-wing Washington Examiner points out that it might be potentially embarassing for Flake and Graham to explain to their conservative constituents why they supported a bill that in their minds would give benefits to illegal immigrants. 
However, as Schumer told The Hill, back in 2006 Republican John McCain called the idea that new immigrants would have to pay taxes but not be eligible for tax credits an "indefensible double standard." Also, the EITC rewards work, a value that conservatives say they support. 
Immigration activists remain concerned about what Sessions' amendment means for floor debate in the Senate, but the bigger concern might be whether the House's own Gang of Eight can find a way to incorporate the provisionally legal immigrants into the Affordable Care Act by their current self-imposed deadline. After the latest step forward in the Senate, it would be a shame if the House's divisons on health care led to another step backward.