SANTA ANA — Hao Thi Nguyen came to the United States five years ago hoping to reunite with her husband and their 14-year-old daughter, who had fled Vietnam eight years before. She ended up on welfare.
Although her husband had signed an affidavit with federal immigration authorities promising to support her, Hao Thi Nguyen arrived only to discover that he had remarried and did not want her.
For three years, Nguyen, who is diabetic and suffers from chronic arthritis in her legs, made ends meet by taking on-and-off sewing jobs and depending on her six adult children, four of whom came to the U.S. with her in 1991.
But after three years, she was eligible for county welfare and since last year has been receiving a monthly government check of $299, and $119 in food stamps.
"It helps a great deal," said Nguyen, 59. "I don't have to burden my children as much anymore."
Social Services officials say cases such as Nguyen's show why the cost to the county general relief budget is skyrocketing, having gone up five times in one year.
Behind the increase, they say, is a little publicized change in federal law. Up until two years ago, immigrants most often received public aid from the federal Supplemental Security Income program once they completed their third year in the U.S.
Supplemental Security Income, a federal program established in 1974 for elderly, disabled or blind people, had increasingly become a primary means of support for sponsored immigrants. The eligibility categories are so broad--particularly the definition of "disabled," which itself has become a source of controversy--that a wide range of people qualify for the monthly checks, said Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for the Social Services Agency.
But Congress changed the law two years ago to require five-year residency before immigrants could be eligible for Supplemental Security Income, which provides about $614 a month for one person living independently and $1,101 for a couple--more if the recipients are blind. That left a two-year gap in public assistance, now filled by local government welfare programs such as Orange County's general relief.
"Just two years ago, virtually all of the sponsored immigrants who now receive general relief would have instead received SSI [Supplemental Security Income] had they applied," Doti said.
The economic impact of the shift of sponsored immigrants to general relief has been dramatic. Before the rules changed, the county spent about $343,020 on welfare for sponsored immigrants. One year later, the county bill jumped to $1.6 million and is climbing an average of 30% each month. General relief is not funded with any state or federal dollars.
From the outset of the change, more than 881 sponsored immigrants in the county who would have received Supplemental Security Income instead sought general relief. The county requires them to apply for Supplemental Security Income, and if they are denied they may stay on general relief if they still qualify.
County statistics indicate that 95% of sponsored immigrants receiving general relief are from Vietnam. Refugees fleeing the Vietnam War established the largest Vietnamese community outside Southeast Asia; relatives have continued to arrive to reunite with family.
In Orange County, almost 70% of the general relief population are not citizens, and of those, 31% are sponsored immigrants in the country less than five years, Doti said. The majority are elderly people, some of whom spent time in re-education camps after the war and are physically or mentally disabled, unable to speak English and virtually unable to support themselves if family members refuse to do so.
When sponsored immigrants on general relief approach the five-year residency mark, the county insists that they, if eligible, apply for Supplemental Security Income. If they do not at least apply, the county will discontinue general relief benefits after two years.
"That's how we know that almost 100% of sponsored immigrants move from general relief to SSI," Doti said. "If they were not accepted for SSI they would still be receiving general relief from us. Instead, each month we move a group off of general relief."
But because of the two-year gap, sponsors commonly affirm to the INS that they own a home worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and are capable of supporting a relative--and then drop that support after three years and threaten to evict the relative unless he or she pays rent.
County officials have dozens of examples of "day-after" scenarios, when sponsors whose three years are up immediately bring their relatives to seek government aid.
In one case, a woman who earns $95,000 annually had sponsored her 72-year-old mother from Russia and supported the elderly woman for exactly three years. The day after the third year passed, she brought her mother to the general relief office, stating the government should support her mother now.