Rethinking Immigrant Benefits

Clinton proposal to restore food stamps could rekindle debate over welfare reforms.

Francisca walks into her roach-infested kitchen and uncovers a box of canned goods jammed in the corner.

It's just about the only food in the apartment.

The family, a single mom and four children, recently lost the right to most of its food stamps.

As the new welfare laws kick in, the story of Francisca - a legal immigrant from the Dominican Republic - is repeated around the country in countless variations. On Nov. 1, hundreds of thousands of low-income legal immigrants lost eligibility for federal food stamps.

At heart, the United States now faces the reality of a philosophical decision it took when it reformed its welfare system. The benefits for legal immigrants no longer match those for full citizens. But even though the law has been signed and enacted, the debate endures: How much does America - a nation still viewed by many around the world as the promised land - owe people who immigrate here legally?

President Clinton, never happy with the benefit cuts to legal immigrants, vowed to "fix" that part of the law when he signed it. Indeed, last week it was reported that Clinton is preparing a proposal to restore these benefits for at least some immigrants. And Congress has already made some changes. Many legal immigrants will now keep their disability and health-care benefits. States now also have the right to purchase federal food stamps and provide them to legal immigrants. Eleven states are doing this, at least for certain groups.

"Some states cover kids, some cover elderly," says Stacy Dean, an analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities here. "What you have is a mish-mash patchwork."

Washington State has instituted the most liberal policy. All 38,000 poor legal immigrants there will keep their food stamps, and new applicants will also be eligible - the only state to do so.

Some big-immigration states, such as California and New York, are covering legal-immigrant kids and certain categories of elderly and disabled. The Texas program, which will cover only elderly and disabled legal immigrants, is expected to be implemented next February. In all three states, the vast majority of legal immigrants have lost their food stamps.

As soon as a recession hits, hunger advocates worry that state coverage will vanish. For now, though, about 200,000 legal immigrants still get food stamps while another 600,000 to 700,000 are doing without. When immigrant families with citizen kids are factored in, the number of people affected by the cutoff rises to about 1.5 million, says Ms. Dean.

That's the situation with Francisca, who lives in the District of Columbia. Two of her kids - twin toddlers Pablo and Paula - are US-born citizens, so they still get food stamps. But Francisca and her two older children have been dropped. The family food-stamp total has gone from $365 a month to $104.

The family, however, still receives $533 a month in cash assistance. Francisca, a shy woman who asked that her last name not be used, receives vouchers to buy basics like milk, peanut butter, and cereal for the toddlers through the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Her two older children get free breakfast and lunch at public school, and the toddlers are enrolled in fully subsidized day care, which provides free food as well. The family also receives health care under Medicaid.

But rent on their two-bedroom apartment is $525, and the fathers of her children are out of the picture. By the end of the month, when the cupboards are bare, Francisca's sister and an American friend bring food. When Francisca does shop, she buys rice, beans, maybe a little meat, "but no more fruits and vegetables," says Francisca, who immigrated here in 1992 and still speaks little English.

Because of the language barrier - she is also not fully literate in her native Spanish - Francisca has no job. She is taking a weekly, two-hour English class, but that's not enough, she says.

The problem with a case like Francisca's is not that the government owes her more, says K.C. McAlpin, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. It's that the person who sponsored her and her older children's immigration - in this case, Francisca's mother - is obligated to support them.

For immigrants entering the country now, the rules have changed. As of Dec. 17, sponsors face stricter obligations of support for the immigrants they vouch for. Sponsors must also prove a higher level of personal income than before.

But in Francisca's case, regardless of the rules, her mother is hardly in a position to take in five extra people. She makes a meager living cleaning offices nearby.

An immigration expert says Americans have to ask themselves, "What is the purpose of immigration policy? Is it to break up families or keep them together? I say, we should want an intact immigrant family."

He says legal immigrants lost benefits because they're easy targets: Unlike citizens, they can't vote.

Meanwhile, reports from food pantries and soup kitchens around the country indicate that demand is on the rise - though legal immigrants account for only part of that increase.

In some immigrant neighborhoods in California, new food pantries have been swamped, while in other immigrant pockets, demand has not increased.

At Yad Ezra, a kosher pantry in Oak Park, Mich., organizers have put together an expanded food package for the 300 clients they expect have lost food stamps. So far, no one's taken advantage of it. "I think as the winter drags on, we're going to start seeing people," says Lea Luger of Yad Ezra's development director.

Here in Washington, Francisca looks forward to the day when she doesn't need public assistance. "When I get a job, I don't want any of this," she says, waving dismissively at the recent form letters about her benefits.

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