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Proposed Cutbacks in Aid Alarm Legal Immigrants

Congress: Activists say most recipients are truly needy. But reformers charge U.S. generosity is being exploited.


Six years ago, Soon Chang Hong and his wife left South Korea and came to live with their daughter in Southern California. When her business faltered, Hong says, the couple were forced to turn to public assistance.

Today, the former Korean cement company executive and his spouse collect $1,100 a month in government checks, live in a federally subsidized apartment and qualify for Medi-Cal health benefits.

"In Korea my children would support me," the 74-year-old Hong says, "but here it is different."

It is a difference that many Americans want to erase, including the large majority in Congress who support pending welfare overhaul legislation that would slash benefits for legal immigrants. To would-be reformers, the recent surge in elderly immigrants living on relief signals widespread exploitation of the nation's historic generosity toward newcomers.

Advocates fighting to retain services say that immigrants who receive public benefits are the exception, but that those who do are almost always truly needy, sometimes one step from destitution. The legislative momentum is against them, however.

The cuts--estimated at $20 billion to $30 billion over six years--would hit especially hard in Los Angeles County, the nation's primary magnet for new arrivals. The legislation, expected to reach President Clinton this week as part of the larger welfare restructuring, would end or drastically curtail immigrants' access to scores of programs, including food stamps, cash benefits, job training and subsidized health coverage.

The welfare plan's treatment of noncitizens amounts to a fundamental shift in social policy: For the first time, the law would restrict benefits for legal immigrants--not the unlawful arrivals targeted by California's Proposition 187. Illegal immigrants are already denied most federal entitlements.

No one knows with precision how many legal immigrants collect benefits, but the number approaches, and may exceed, 2 million. According to a congressional estimate, California, home to about 40% of the nation's immigrants, is also the place of residence of more than half the estimated 1.5 million legal immigrants receiving either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for the aged, disabled and blind, or Aid to Families With Dependent Children, just two of many programs available to immigrants. The Hongs are among the burgeoning number of noncitizens on SSI, a program whose explosive growth in recent years has become a flash point in the debate.

Although lawful immigrants account for about 5% of federal social spending, the cuts targeting them represent more than 40% of the planned congressional welfare savings, according to the National Immigration Law Center, a pro-immigrant advocacy group based in Los Angeles.

Word of the planned rollback has resounded in immigrant enclaves nationwide. Social service groups in Los Angeles report being besieged with desperate callers. There is vast confusion. Opponents are mobilizing to pressure for a presidential veto.

"I don't know what my family would do without this help," said Long Ma, 18, a teacher's assistant who lives with his parents and two younger siblings in Los Angeles. All arrived together three years ago as refugees from Vietnam. The family receives the equivalent of about $1,000 a month in federal food stamps and cash payments, Ma said.

The aid reflects the recognition that most refugees arrive with few resources, sometimes barely escaping with their lives. Refugees, along with elderly SSI recipients and obstetrical patients, are the heaviest noncitizen welfare users, experts say. Non-refugee, working-age immigrants tend to use welfare benefits at about the same rate as the comparable U.S. native population, studies show, even though the immigrants are generally poorer.

Under the congressional plan, refugee families would be guaranteed access to benefits for only five years--barely enough, critics say, to ensure their difficult transition into American life.

But refugees are just one piece of the multinational mosaic that is contemporary America, where immigration levels now rival the historic highs of a century ago.

Many may assume that today's immigration is largely a Latin American and Asian affair. But many Europeans, Canadians, Africans and others are among those facing cutbacks.

"I'd be destitute if I were to lose this help," said Sara Stevens, a 52-year-old native of Northern Ireland who lives in Los Angeles. The single woman's driving fear: homelessness.

Afflicted with a heart condition and other ailments, Stevens receives a monthly SSI check of about $300 to complement the $300 or so she gets from Social Security. Stevens finds her predicament particularly bitter: She worked in the United States for more than nine years before she was stricken. Under the congressional bills, immigrants who have paid 40 quarters of Social Security taxes--the equivalent of 10 years--are exempt from the SSI ban. She just misses out.

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