Immigrants continue to take advantage of the public dole more than native-born Americans despite a massive overhaul of welfare laws designed to put a crimp in benefits to non-citizens.

Almost six years after the landmark 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the number of individuals on welfare has declined only slightly, and in at least one state — California — immigrant dependence on the welfare system is again on the rise, according to immigration economist George J. Borjas in his report entitled "The Impact of Welfare Reform on Immigrant Welfare Use."

"I would not be surprised if we saw after a few years that (welfare reform) had very little long-term effect," Borjas told an audience in Washington Thursday.

Immigration advocates, however, warns that the numbers can be played to underscore a particular agenda.

"The way you frame the questions and use the data can affect the conclusions you draw," said Jeffrey Passel of the Urban Institute, which has run its own numbers and conclusions.

Passel said that state cash assistance to immigrants has declined markedly from 18.7 percent in 1994 to 8.7 percent in 1999. Food stamps have gone down from 35.1 percent to 21.9 percent in the same time.

According to Borjas' study, the number of U.S. native households receiving welfare assistance declined from 15.6 percent in 1984 to 13.5 percent in 1998. That number inched back up to 13.7 in 2000.

As for immigrants, their reliance on welfare aid went from 23.4 percent in 1994 to 20 percent in 1998, and rose to 21 percent of the population in 2000.

Borjas said the rising numbers are indicative of the actions by states to fill the gaps when legal non-citizens were thrown off welfare rolls as a result of the 1996 reforms.

Every state but Texas rushed to institute programs allowing legal immigrants to apply for food stamps, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly, and cash assistance.

"The fact is that state actions played a big part," he said. "States where immigrants lived stepped in and took the hit."

In California, where in 1994 voters supported Proposition 187 — a referendum restricting legal immigrants from access to many state public assistance programs — immigrants on welfare went from 31.2 percent to 23.2 in 1998.

But since Proposition 187 and the election of Gov. Gray Davis, California has become one of the most generous states to legal immigrants, which make up about 29 percent of all immigrant households, mostly Mexican, in the country. In 2000, 26.7 percent of immigrants in California received welfare assistance.

According to the Center for Immigration Studies, which sponsored Thursday's event, 500,000 out of the 1.3 million immigrants a year come from south of the border, where the economy is stagnant and unemployment is high.

Some experts say that to reduce the number of immigrants on welfare, the government must cut off entry to uneducated, non-skilled workers.

"Are we inviting groups that have a high propensity to become a public burden on society? Yes," charged Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, who spoke among a panel of experts in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

Rector said the real issue is the U.S. immigration policy, which lets in hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and other poor peoples who cannot survive without public assistance once they get here. He said the U.S. spent $430 billion last year on total welfare assistance — $5,300 per taxpayer.

Borjas suggested a "point" system for qualifying prospective immigrants, based on eligibility for family re-unification as well as education and work skills.

"It is not a welfare problem, it is an immigration problem," he said. "Clearly, welfare reform did not fix our immigration problems."

Passel agreed that the greatest number of immigrants — legal and otherwise — come from Mexico, and are for the most part poor and in needing of assistance, but warned against throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

"The immigrants are using more welfare because they are poorer, not because they have more of a propensity to use welfare," Passel said. "As welfare is increasingly seen as a way for immigrants to work towards upward mobility, it doesn't make sense to restrict their access to it."