Who Feels Welfare Overhaul

Legal Immigrants Hit Hard by Aid Cutbacks

Poor mothers and their children are not the only ones who would be affected by the sweeping welfare-reform plan now chugging through Congress. In one of the least-understood impacts of the controversial proposal, another group of people would be cut off from public aid - legal immigrants.

Under legislation passed last week by the House and Tuesday by the Senate, federal spending would drop an estimated $59 billion over the next seven years. Of that amount, almost half will come from refusing most forms of federal public assistance to legal immigrants.

"Immigrants are using 5 percent of federal services, yet they are accounting for 40 to 50 percent of the savings," says Tanya Broder, a policy analyst for the New California Coalition, an immigrant rights group.

By some accounts, there are more than 10 million legal permanent residents in the US who are not yet citizens. Although many of them work, under the congressional reform plan, none would ever be able to receive Aid to Dependent Families with Children (AFDC), food stamps, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which pays benefits to the elderly poor and the disabled.

The reform will fall disproportionately on a few states, including California, home to 52 percent of all legal immigrants who are on SSI.

"Nearly a million California residents - more than the entire population of many states - who are blind, aged, disabled, or poor would lose SSI, AFDC, and Medicaid benefits under this bill," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said in debate Tuesday.

The California State Association of Counties estimates that counties will lose at least $9 billion in federal assistance over seven years. The impact on Los Angeles County alone could be more than $300 million a year, the association says.

These officials anticipate that California's local governments will end up shouldering the burden of supporting these people, particularly their medical care. Legally, local governments are obligated to provide a "safety net" to indigent individuals.

"The fiscal impact for counties will be absolutely devastating," says Frank Mecca, executive director of the California Welfare Directors Association, which represents county welfare agencies.

The provisions of the House and Senate welfare-reform bills are virtually the same, says Ms. Broder. But the Senate bill does not refuse Medicaid to current legal immigrants, although it does allow states the option of denying such medical benefits.

Immigrants affected by this legislation are a wide variety of legal entrees. They include parents joining their children, highly skilled workers sponsored by American firms, and political refugees. In California, their ranks include tens of thousands of Russian Jews who fled persecution in the Soviet Union and received refugee status.

Of about 2,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union currently in the San Francisco Bay Area, about 80 percent are getting some form of assistance, says Josey Berry, who runs a resettlement program for the refugees. Under the reform bills, refugees would have five years' exemption from the ban. But even with that proviso, "it will have a huge impact," says Ms. Berry. "To me, it's very un-American."

"We are talking about people who are here legally, who waited their turn to come here," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California told the Senate during debate on the measure. "We are talking about refugees, people who sought asylum, and we are changing the rules."

An attempt by Senators Boxer and Feinstein, backed by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas, to amend the welfare bill so that the ban would apply only to new immigrants was defeated.

Backers of the legislation argue that families who sponsored the immigrants should be held financially responsible rather than the taxpayer. The United States has become "a retirement home for millions of people all over the world to come over here and have you, the taxpayer, pay for their retirement," says Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania.

But simply tracking sponsors, much less getting them to pay, poses yet another burden on local governments, officials argue. "You're talking about a massive administrative effort," says county association official Victor Pottoroff. The congressional bills provide no funding for such effort. Moreover, many legal immigrants are not sponsored, including political refugees. For example, of 804,000 legal immigrants in 1984, only 463,000 were sponsored by their families, says Broder.

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