WASHINGTON — CLUTCHING a small flag in a trembling hand, Dunia Hertwag celebrates her first moments as a US citizen. It's a joyful day, not just for her, but for her mother in Honduras.
To Ms. Hertwag, a Washington preschool teacher, and thousands of immigrants like her, one of the chief rewards of naturalization is the chance to bring family members to America.
But immigration reforms under discussion in Congress would make it harder for some relatives of legal immigrants - especially elderly parents like Ms. Hertwag's mother - to settle here.
Reform supporters say proposed restrictions would rein in the rising costs of elderly immigrants who collect public assistance. Critics counter the legislation would rob many immigrant families of the incalculable value of grandparents. The debate pits fiscal responsibility against family values, tales of fraud against stories of forced separation.
"If you look at pictures of Ellis Island, most of those immigrants were young parents with kids," says Daniel Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "These were not old people who came to retire at taxpayer expense."
Indeed, the number of elderly immigrants applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits over the last 12 years has grown by 580 percent to an annual cost of $4 billion. Elderly immigrants now represent 30 percent of all SSI beneficiaries, up from 6 percent in 1992. And some researchers say brochures are popping up in foreign countries explaining how to apply for American benefits.
Mr. Stein says new citizens are bringing their parents in and within five years declaring them indigent and encouraging them to apply for benefits, even if they live under their roofs. In some cases, he says, SSI money is going to upscale addresses.
Moreover, Texas Rep. Lamar Smith (R), author of the House bill, argues that the current system fails many families. By making little distinction between the types of relatives admitted, he says, many elderly immigrants are taking the places of spouses and young children. Mr. Smith's bill would cut family-based immigration from 465,000 to 330,000 and give first priority to spouses and minor children of legal immigrants. Admissions of parents would be capped at 50,000.
The bill also would tighten sponsorship provisions, mandating that in order to bring in a relative, immigrants must sign a binding agreement to support them until they become citizens.
A Senate bill, sponsored by Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming, would allow parents into the country only if at least half of their living children reside here. The bill would require sponsors to earn at least twice the federal poverty level (about $30,000 a year), and to provide prepaid health insurance to their charges.
"It is important to send the message to those seeking to immigrate to this nation that America may be the land of freedom and opportunity, but it is not the land of free lunches and lavish handouts," says Senate Budget chairman Pete Domenici.
But the fate of these proposals grew more uncertain last week when a Senate committee voted to consider legal and illegal immigration reforms in two separate bills. Because legal immigration curbs are less popular, the move increases chances that reforms will be tempered, if not discarded.
This was welcome news at the Hertwag residence. If her mother comes to America, Ms. Hertwag explains, she can help with household chores, keep an eye on her 15-year-old daughter, and rekindle the family's Latin-American cultural heritage. "We can be a family again," she says.
CALIFORNIA Rep. Xavier Becerra (D), one of the House bill's most vocal opponents, says critics of current rules are trying to assign a dollar value to something intangible and ignoring the social dividends. "I'm never going to talk about my parents as [hired] hands.... If we get to the point where we're talking about parents that way, I think we've really diminished our understanding of ... family."
Elderly parents often offset the costs of child care, Mr. Becerra says, allowing families to save for college educations or build family businesses.
"Immigrant parents can provide essential household support, which promotes economic well- being and mobility," says David Martin, general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "Such reunified families often make the difference between a family that needs public assistance and one that is self-sufficient."
While Becerra concedes there is some abuse of the system and that enforcement ought to be stiffened, he argues that most immigrants apply for SSI benefits because they are, in fact, indigent. And when refugees are removed from the equation, he says, immigrants as a group are less dependent on entitlements than the rest of the population.
The best solution, he says, is to bolster enforcement of sponsorship rules instead of turning more immigrants away or only allowing families to sponsor relatives once they have achieved affluence.
Still, statistics show that in the past 15 years, 10 million immigrants have been admitted without regard to their skills or level of education - a strategy that does not make sense, say reform advocates, when Congress is trying to slow entitlement spending and protect American jobs.
Says Smith, the cost of welfare for elderly immigrants "is a pretty expensive form of child care."