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Cities Fear INS Clamp on Benefits

December 22, 1987|BOB SCHWARTZ | Times Staff Writer

A proposal that would bar recipients of amnesty under immigration law from receiving federal housing benefits could disrupt cities' efforts to renovate blighted neighborhoods, local officials fear.

The proposed rule by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which may become final in the next month or two, could prevent cities from using federal money to help relocate tenants displaced by renewal projects--even though other laws require that such tenants receive relocation help.

"People could be displaced as a result of activities we're involved in, and we would not be able to help them with federal benefits," said Greg Devereaux, director of housing and neighborhood development in Garden Grove. "That is certainly contrary to the way those programs were designed and is contrary to their intent."

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 grants legal resident status to illegal aliens who have lived in the United States continuously since Jan. 1, 1982, and to some farm workers who have been here a shorter time.

In keeping with the law's requirement that amnesty recipients prove that they have been self-sufficient and are not likely to become public charges, newly legalized aliens are barred for several years from receiving varied public welfare, housing and education benefits that are normally granted on the basis of need.

Last August, the INS published a proposed regulation under the law listing about 40 programs that would be off limits to amnesty recipients for five years. The list includes Section 8 housing aid from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and community development block grant and rental housing rehabilitation programs.

Under Section 8 housing assistance programs, tenants pay part of their rents based on income and housing authorities pay the remainder, usually directly to landlords.

The program is often used to help tenants forced into higher-priced housing by redevelopment programs.

The INS rule would appear to conflict with recent HUD guidelines advising housing authorities that they may not ask the citizenship status of applicants for Section 8 programs, said Scott Reed, spokesman for the department in Los Angeles.

A housing bill that would have overridden many of the INS's proposed regulations was defeated last month in the Senate, although its defeat was not caused by provisions regarding newly legalized aliens, said Charles Wheeler, directing attorney for the National Center for Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.

The bill would have allowed all aliens receiving Section 8 or other housing benefits to keep them, and it would have made newly legalized aliens eligible for those benefits. It also would have made future aliens eligible, provided that either the head of the household or that person's spouse was a citizen or legal resident.

The bill may be revived next year, but local governments and immigrant-rights groups are focusing their attention now on the proposed INS regulations.

Dornan Wants Change

Even conservative Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) is trying to muster support for a change in the proposal to keep from depriving amnesty applicants of housing benefits.

"Unless exceptions are made for government-initiated actions, . . . these redevelopment programs are going to come to a halt, and that's not a good thing," said Brian Bennett, Dornan's chief of staff. "It's the lesser of two evils: You don't want to give benefits to illegals, but you also don't want to see redevelopment come to a halt."

As an illustration of the rule's potential impact, Garden Grove's Devereaux cited a recent project in which 24 apartment units in the low-income, predominantly Latino Buena Clinton area were renovated with both city and private funds. Eleven of the families living in the refurbished--and therefore more expensive--units were eligible for rent subsidies under HUD's Section 8 program.

While the city did not inquire about the immigration status of the tenants, Devereaux said: "It is likely that some of those families would have been prevented (from getting rent subsidies) under the proposed program. . . . We could have been responsible for them not being able to afford the unit any longer, . . . but we would not have been able to assist them."

Rehabilitation Plan

The city plans to rehabilitate 100 more units in Buena Clinton and will commit Section 8 funds to the refurbished units, Devereaux said. "None of the people who get caught in the amnesty trap would be eligible for those units," he said, even if they were the previous tenants.

The rule could have an even greater impact in Anaheim, where the city and a private development firm plan to rehabilitate the entire Chevy Chase neighborhood, a square-mile area of about 400 units, many of which are run-down and overcrowded.

Ten families have already been relocated, and another 90 may be moved before the $29-million project is completed, said Lisa Stipkovich, assistant executive director for community development.

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