SAN FRANCISCO — Like many of his fellow Hmong people, Sai Chou Lor fought in the CIA's "secret war" against the Laotian Communists. Two years ago, Mr. Lor and his wife and four children were admitted as legal immigrants to America, settling down in California's sun-dappled San Joaquin valley.
But now Lor, like millions of other immigrants, is about to lose the federal aid that has been his family's main means of support.
Because of a serious war wound, Lor has been unable to work. Early last month he received notice that he would lose his Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits in May. A few days later, Lor attempted suicide. He remains in a Stockton hospital.
He is an extreme case of what happens when the government looks at what it can and can't afford - and tries to usher in an era of greater self sufficiency.
Millions of immigrants' lives are being changed by two pieces of legislation passed last year: immigration reform that takes effect today and welfare reform laws that will follow soon after. The changes are stirring a political conflict over the fate of both legal and illegal immigrants.
Lor was hit by the first legal assault, a provision of the welfare reform laws that cut off social benefits to more than 500,000 legal immigrants who are not yet citizens.
The impact of the immigration reform that begins today may be less dramatic, but it is equally far-reaching. Among its provisions, the complex new law imposes income requirements on people who try to bring family members to join them in the United States, increases the number of Border Patrol agents, streamlines deportation procedures, and limits exemptions to deportation.
As news of the immigration law hit New York and California, where the largest concentrations of migrants live, it also sowed confusion. Misinformation about the laws has sparked concern of mass deportations beginning today and sent thousands to the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to apply for citizenship.
Among the rumors spreading through immigrant communities was the belief that they would have to take their children out of school today. The rumor became so widespread that the San Francisco school district sent letters home with all Latino and Chinese students telling parents this was not necessary.
"There's a lot of misinformation and people are really scared right now," says Angie Wei of the Northern California Coalition for Immigrant Rights.
An INS campaign to dispel deportation concerns and to clarify that most of the law's provisions will not go into effect until September has eased crowds. But the steady stream of people going into the INS office in New York City bear evidence of lingering doubts nationwide.
David and his new wife, Shereeda, who is from Trinidad, say the changes in the immigration laws pushed them to file for her US citizenship now. "We rushed into it because we heard that if you don't file by April 1, your spouse will be deported," says David, who is an American citizen. In addition, the two decided to get married three weeks ago rather than wait another six months to ensure she would be granted citizenship. "Once you deal with these people you get paranoid," says David, who requested his last name not be used.
Meanwhile, on the sidewalks in front of the office, people hand out fliers advertising services for everything from green card replacement to citizenship applications. The area has also become a hotbed for lawyers peddling services. Part of the problem is that the law itself is very confusing, and parts of it have already been delayed, say legal experts.
In the meantime, there is no shortage of people ready to take advantage of the desperation of immigrants. In one scam, reported by Greg Gourley, the director of New Americans of Washington, which provides citizenship classes, immigrants are buying a widely circulated study guide filled with erroneous answers for the citizenship exam. The purple-covered guide conveys official approval, but the book is sold by a private, Sacramento-based organization that has targeted Russian-speaking applicants on the West Coast.
The changes in the welfare law have also put pressure on legal immigrants to seek citizenship, which would make them eligible for their benefits. But many of those most affected, the recipients of SSI, are the people who have the most difficulty meeting citizenship requirements. By definition under the program, they are disabled, blind, and elderly who are extremely poor.
"Many of them are uneducated, and very elderly - they cannot learn English," says Robert Lor, director of the Refugee Resource Center, which services some 58,000 Southeast Asian and Asian-Pacific immigrants in California's San Joaquin County. The INS only very recently issued clear guidelines for waivers to pass the English and US history exams for people with certain disabilities, or for those elderly who have been in the country for 15 to 20 years, but many are ignorant of those provisions.
Last week a coalition of civil liberty and immigration rights lawyers filed a class-action suit on behalf of immigrants who have lost benefits in federal district courts in New York and California to block implementation of these provisions. They argue that the law is a violation of constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
"This anti-immigrant legislation is beyond the constitutional pale," says Judith Gold, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in California, where about 40 percent of those affected live. "It will jeopardize the very survival of poor legal residents with disabilities or who are elderly, and who are full-fledged members of our society, pay taxes, and have been welcomed to reside permanently in the US."
* Shelley Donald Coolidge in New York contributed to this story.