WASHINGTON — THE status of the nation's 12 million legal immigrants faces dramatic change under controversial legislation in the Republican ``Contract With America'' coming up in Congress.
Just as a movement to deny illegal immigrants public benefits hits stride nationwide, GOP lawmakers in Congress want to cut off welfare aid for most legal immigrants who are not citizens.
Republicans see it as a way to save significant money - $22 billion over five years - and curb ``abuses'' of the welfare system. Critics see it as a demeaning and unfair slap at a group protected as a special minority since a 1970 Supreme Court ruling.
Today the House holds hearings on a welfare-reform bill before a subcommittee chaired by Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida. The bill would eliminate by 1996 all federal public assistance for noncitizens, with the exception of refugees and legal immigrants over age 75.
The proposed cutoff is causing a minor storm on Capitol Hill. This week, under pressure from Hispanic members of Congress and Senate majority leader Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia backed off an absolute ban, though supporters remain resolute there will be changes.
``We can solve some problems by giving a tiny amount of money for extreme circumstances,'' says Mr. Shaw. ``But as for funding legal noncitizens, I just don't think that is going to happen.''
Opponents say the ban paints a false picture of immigrants as freeloaders on par with illegal immigrants who did not go through a screening process.
``It is absolutely degrading,'' says Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza. ``Immigrants are hard-working people who pay taxes like everyone else.''
Republicans reply that the mood of the country favors the change. Taxpayers are concerned about deficits and welfare - as in the California Proposition 187 vote last November to halt many public services to illegal immigrants.
Critics say there are many unanswered questions about the ban. For instance, would states simply have to pick up the cost of caring for indigent legal immigrants?
Legal scholars also say the bill may raise constitutional problems based on a 1970 Supreme Court ruling (Graham v. Richardson) forbidding states to discriminate between citizens and aliens.
Yet both sides say the welfare ban highlights a paradox: the fact that current law requires new immigrants and their hosts to state that the newcomers do not need public assistance, and the fact that increasing numbers of legal immigrants are applying for it. The legal immigrant population in the US has doubled since 1990.
House Republicans say immigrants are more likely to accept welfare than are ordinary citizens. Yet that figure is only correct if refugees - a separate group - are included in the total. Information about immigrants is a statistical Bermuda Triangle, where many a policymaker has disappeared.
EXPERTS agree that legal immigrants of working age are twice as unlikely to take welfare as citizens. In the 1990 Census, 371,000 of 8.7 million receiving public assistance, or 4.3 percent, were legal immigrants. If the refugee population is included, the figure jumps to 9.3 percent. The US total population average is 7.2 percent.
Robert Bach, a policy planner at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, says: ``The distinction between legal immigrants and refugees is not being made by politicians and it clouds the funding issues.''
There are few accurate statistics. The best estimate is that 75 percent of legal immigrants who currently receive welfare will be cut off. Some 20 percent of the most vulnerable group - age 65 to 75 - will lose benefits, between 100,000 and 250,000 people.
Elderly and disabled immigrants on welfare jumped from 92,000 in 1982, to 683,000 in 1993. But as for the total number of legal immigrants, a senior US Department of Health and Human Services official says: ``People are asking, but we don't know....''
Another explosive unknown number is the cost to states. Some such as New York have a state constitutional requirement to offer services to citizens and legal immigrants on an equal basis. Thus, they may have to pick up the tab if the federal government stops paying. ``There will be a cost shift to the states, and it will be substantial,'' says a Congressional Budget Office source.
Staff members of the Commission on Immigration Reform, a bipartisan body that has been studying changes in America's overall immigration laws, say the Ways and Means Committee is not the place to solve thorny issues of citizenship. They want to improve, not abolish, the current system by enforcing the financial guarantee an immigrant's host now signs.
Under the proposed aid cutoff, immigrants falling on hard times would simply be deportable - unless they applied for citizenship. Critics say a bill that would force people to become citizens in order to qualify for public assistance sets perverse incentives.
As Susan Martin, executive director of the presidential commission says, ``We want newcomers to be citizens not because of benefits, but to participate fully in the civic culture.''