Social Safety Net for Immigrants Safe - For Now

Benefits restored for legal immigrants, but future help doubtful.

This was to be the long hot summer legal immigrants have been dreading for almost a year.

A big provision of last year's welfare reform bill was to go into effect by August, stripping key federal benefits from legal non-citizens, many of them elderly and disabled.

But a quiet backlash has been brewing, resulting in - on paper at least - reinstatement of many of those benefits. The budget deal struck by President Clinton and congressional leaders earlier this month would allow legal immigrants who are already living in the United States to continue collecting Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an entitlement program that provides stipends for the elderly, blind, and physically disadvantaged.

The president calls it one of his biggest victories from the fiscal negotiations. Conservative Republicans say that at least future legal US immigrants will be largely ineligible for SSI rolls.

"As long as we stop the SSI from growing, and cut off the magnet effect, it solves the larger problem," says Florida Republican Clay Shaw, a welfare reform leader in the last Congress.

Approximately 51 percent of SSI benefits go to elderly noncitizens, something Representative Shaw says was never intended by the authors of the original law.

The fiscal 1998 budget deal's provisions have yet to be drafted into specific law. But interim help may be on the way for legal immigrants, as well. Supplemental 1997 spending bills now wending their way through the House and Senate would provide a "bridge" of SSI benefits until the new budget could presumably take effect.

The catalyst for legal immigrants' reversal of fortune has been intense lobbying pressure from immigrants' rights groups, state governors, and most importantly, Mr. Clinton. For months, his plan to restore many benefits to 350,000 of the 500,000 immigrants most severely affected by welfare reform went nowhere. In the context of the larger budget however, he seems to have been successful.

For budget hawks in Washington, the reduction or elimination of benefits to legal immigrants has been an elusive target in the never-ending quest for a balanced budget. As originally passed, the welfare-reform law would save $13 billion by reducing immigrant benefits. That's almost 25 percent of the $54 billion in savings the larger welfare-reform measure was designed to achieve over seven years.

THE plan to cut off benefits to future immigrants while shielding elderly immigrants already in the US is generally supported by US governors, including Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) who lobbied Congress hard for the change.

Many states worry that they would have to provide services for elderly immigrants suddenly thrown off off the SSI rolls.

"What I'm hearing from the states about the plan is positive and supportive," says Susan Golonka at the National Governors Association.

Restoration of SSI benefits is far from a done deal at this point.

"We are talking about a budget at this point, we are not talking about the gory specificity of legislation," says Carol Cox Wait of the Committee for Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan watchdog group.

Under the budget blueprint congressional appropriations committees are working from, roughly $10 billion will be restored to SSI to pay for the average $400 monthly benefit received by legal immigrants. But food stamps for immigrants are not restored by the budget plan.

Despite the good news for beneficiaries, advocates are sounding a cautionary note.

Even with the budget agreement reached, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois is concerned that the immigrants' needs are still not adequately addressed. He's concerned about the tentative status of the current budget. "Even if we want that $10 billion, it's going to take a lot of hard work," says a statement from his office.

Last week, Gutierrez organized demonstrations in Washington and at least half a dozen other cities to draw attention to the benefits. "If we are going to balance the federal budget, it should not be on the backs of vulnerable, elderly immigrants," he says.

The potential for cuts is still being taken seriously however by legal immigrants. Nearly 2 million immigrants are expected to apply for US citizenship by year's end. If that total is realized, it would triple the number of applicants in 1995. But the the naturalization process is intimidating. Less than 9 percent of all immigrants 65 and older become citizens.

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