Social service experts in Southern California said Thursday that the Bush Administration's proposal to allow an additional 30,000 Soviet citizens into the United States this year without allocating federal funds to help them could lead to the development of a permanent welfare class.
The proposal announced Wednesday would create a new category of immigrant: one eligible for state and county welfare assistance and for U.S. citizenship but not for federal programs that routinely enable political refugees to move out of the welfare system and into the job market.
"It's a very simple idea--the best thing for a person coming in is to learn English and get a job," said Bruce Whipple, director of the Los Angeles office of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee, a private refugee service agency. "Without the chance to do that, they're going to go on welfare, and it will be a much longer time before they get into the job market. Some of them probably never will."
Thousands of the Soviet citizens are expected to land in Southern California, where welfare rolls are already overloaded by an influx of political refugees that last year was five times larger than the number who came to Los Angeles County in 1986. That does not include the thousands of immigrants, legal and otherwise, who are flocking here.
Federal officials maintain that the new class of immigrants will be able to get by without government help.
"They'll have to meet the same criteria that all immigrants do, to demonstrate they're not going to be a public charge," said Verne Jervis, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman. "I mean, we're not throwing open the welfare rolls of the United States to the world."
Refugee officials, however, say that is exactly what the Bush Administration is proposing. The bill drafted by the State and Justice departments would establish a program to admit people who do not qualify as refugees because they cannot establish a well-founded fear of persecution and who do not satisfy normal immigration standards. But the new status would bar the immigrants from federally funded programs that help refugees learn English, get medical care, rent an apartment and find a job.
Relaxed Immigration Policy
The Administration proposal is the latest in a series of efforts to cope with a stunning increase in the number of emigres leaving the Soviet Union under Mikhail S. Gorbachev's relaxed immigration policy. The surge has caught the State Department unaware, leaving the federal government with an embarrassing budget shortfall and sparking this week's decision. Thousands have been waiting outside Rome for permission to enter the United States.
As the number of immigrants entering the United States mounts, so does the burden on Los Angeles County, where an estimated 80% of the 14,000 Soviet Armenians and 10% of Soviet Jews entering the United States since October, 1987, have settled.
Legal resident aliens who are not eligible for federally funded refugee programs can apply for two welfare programs--general relief and Aid to Families With Dependent Children--the moment they arrive in the United States, and many do. Of the Soviet Armenian emigres who have settled in Los Angeles County in the past year and a half, 80% are still receiving welfare payments, county officials said.
In light of the Bush Administration proposal, some immigrant service groups said they are seeking additional money to fund the resettlement of the refugees themselves.
The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles--an umbrella group of organizations that helps resettle Soviet Jews--has increased its fund-raising goal to $53 million this year, contrasted with $48 million in 1986, council Executive Vice President Wayne Feinstein said.
Other private service agencies said they planned to improvise and would try to aid the new arrivals in any way they can. Sylvia Gonzalez, a director of the International Institute of Los Angeles, a nonprofit refugee agency that uses federal funds to settle refugees, said she will allow those who walk in seeking help to sit in the back of English classes at the institute.
Under the refugee programs for which most Soviet immigrants have been eligible, social workers say they expect most will learn enough English to take their first jobs in the United States soon. For the new class of immigrants the Bush Administration is proposing to create, social workers and refugee officials have no such hopes.
'It's a Great Leap'
"It's a great leap for them to make it into the job market, and they need an awful lot of encouragement to do that," Whipple said. ". . . Until you have a job, you just don't see all the possibilities. They have all this time to sit around and drink endless amounts of coffee and talk about the old days. That doesn't get it. That just doesn't get it."
Other refugee workers said they fear that the Soviet emigres will be in trouble as soon as they arrive.
"The government is saying they are welcome to come at their own expense, but they leave with nothing and if their relatives here don't have money to support them, where are they going to be?" Gonzalez said. "We are talking about large families, children. I don't know what's going to happen, but it doesn't look very good."
A White House official indicated that there had been no discussion of assistance for the Soviet immigrants and said, "The Soviet emigres appear to be fairly productive people."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this article.