The helping hand offered by social welfare programs is being utilized by most legal and illegal immigrant families, the latest sign that many immigrants come to America for the taxpayer-funded benefits like Medicaid, subsidized food and cash, according to a new report based on Census data.

In analyzing new Census reports, the Center for Immigration Studies found that immigrant families with one or more children use welfare far more than "native" American families.

"Welfare use by illegal immigrant households is certainly a concern, but the bigger issue is welfare use by legal immigrants," said Steven Camarota, the Center's director of research and author of the report.

"Three-fourths of immigrant households using welfare are headed by legal immigrants. Legal immigration is supposed to benefit the country, yet so many legal immigrants are not able to support themselves or their children. This raises important questions about the selection criteria used for legal immigration," said Camarota.

The report highlights the economics of immigration, especially illegal immigration, and comes as Syrian refugees are seeking to settle in European nations that provide rich welfare benefits.

The report also suggests that America is attracting poor and uneducated immigrants.

"Low levels of education — not legal status — are the main reason immigrant welfare use is high," said the Center's preview of their report, released Thursday.

It shows that legal immigrant households make extensive use of welfare, while illegal immigrant households primarily benefit from food programs and Medicaid through U.S.-born children.

According to the report, provided in advance to Secrets, "Households headed by legal immigrants have statistically significant higher use of welfare than native households overall, and for cash and food programs as well as Medicaid. This is the case a decade and a half after the 1996 welfare reform law, which was supposed to greatly limit immigrant access to the welfare system."

It added: "If one assumes that legal immigration is supposed to benefit the country, then immigrants allowed into the country should have much lower rates of welfare use than natives. However, our best estimate is that nearly half (49 percent) of households headed by legal immigrants used at least one welfare program in 2012."

Other key findings pulled from the report:

— Legal immigrant households account for three-quarters of all immigrant households accessing one or more welfare programs.

— Of legal immigrant households with children, 72 percent access one or more welfare programs, compared to 52 percent of native households.

— Of households headed by immigrants in the country illegally, we estimate that 62 percent used one or more welfare programs in 2012, compared to 30 percent of native households.

— Households headed by immigrants illegally in the country have higher use rates than native households overall and for food programs (57 percent vs. 22 percent) and Medicaid (51 percent vs. 23 percent). Use of cash programs by illegal immigrants is lower than use by natives (5 percent vs. 10 percent), as is use of housing programs (4 percent vs. 6 percent).

— Of illegal immigrant households with children, 87 percent access one or more welfare programs, compared to 52 percent of native households.

— Education level plays a larger role in explaining welfare use than legal status. The most extensive use of welfare is by less-educated immigrants who are in the country legally. Of households headed by legal immigrants without a high school diploma, 75 percent use one or more welfare programs, as do 64 percent of households headed by legal immigrants with only a high school education.

— Restrictions on new legal immigrants' access to welfare have not prevented them from accessing programs at high rates because restrictions often apply to only a modest share of immigrants at any one time. Some programs are not restricted, there are numerous exceptions and exemptions, and some provisions are entirely unenforced. Equally important, immigrants, including those illegally in the country, can receive welfare on behalf of their U.S.-born children.

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at