More than 5,500 new immigrants have applied for welfare, out of an estimated 200,000 who became eligible after the top court cut the residency requirement from seven years to one in December.
The statistics are contrary to fears the Court of Final Appeal's decision to restore the pre-2004 criterion of one year would trigger a flood of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) applications, the Legislative Council's subcommittee on poverty heard yesterday.
Nevertheless, many members of the public at the Legco meeting yesterday were unhappy, making comments that included: "taxpayers' money is being sucked dry to feed lazy non-Hongkongers".
Many lawmakers condemned that sentiment.
"While we appreciate [comments from the public], it is shocking and very sad to hear how discriminatory Hong Kong can be," lawmaker Dr Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung said.
"It is heartbreaking to hear the comments, but this is the reality - our discrimination is a fact."
The administration, for financial reasons, raised the bar on obtaining welfare handouts in 2004.
But on December 17, the court declared that the seven-year residency rule was unconstitutional and lowered the requirement back to one year.
Since then, the Social Welfare Department has received 5,567 CSSA applications from people who have lived in Hong Kong for two to seven years.
About 15 groups and individuals spoke at the meeting, many using words such as "lazy" and "undeserving" to describe new immigrants and accusing them of "leeching off Hong Kong".
The criticism also came despite government figures showing more than 70 per cent of new immigrant families had working members.
Sze Lai-shan, of the NGO Society for Community Organisation, estimated between 200,000 and 300,000 people became eligible under the ruling.
She hit back at claims that the additional load would strain welfare resources. "If that was the case, the system would have been shot before 2003. Those are groundless accusations," Sze said. "The profile of new immigrants has changed," she said, adding that in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than eight out of 10 were poor.
Only 40 per cent of new immigrants today were working class, and they had achieved higher education levels than those who came before them, Sze said.