SACRAMENTO — The confusion and disarray that marked state and federal relations over welfare reform this week spilled over to counties Friday, as local officials were instructed to begin denying food stamps to certain legal immigrants.
The directive, issued by the Wilson administration at the request of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ordered counties, beginning Monday, to turn down new applications for food stamps submitted by legal immigrants.
But state officials still had not notified Orange County officials of the governor's order, who worried they would be unable to implement the change by Monday morning.
"Quite honestly, sitting here on Friday evening, there is no way we can act by Monday morning," said Angelo Doti, director of financial assistance for Orange County's Social Services Agency. "But we'll move as fast as we can when we finally get instructions."
Orange County officials estimate about 1,200 people over the next month will be denied food stamp benefits under the plan. The county's Social Services Agency usually receives about 3,000 new applications for food stamps per month, about 40% from legal immigrants.
Los Angeles County officials said the time needed to distribute new instructions to eligibility workers will force them to delay implementation of the directive until Oct. 1.
Burt Cohen, assistant secretary of the California Health and Welfare Agency, said the directive will not affect legal immigrants who are already receiving food stamps, but only those who make new applications for benefits.
He acknowledged that counties were being required to implement the first major provision in a sweeping federal welfare reform measure with few guidelines and little time to retrain workers.
"This is a huge undertaking in terms of changing forms, changing computer systems, training staff, issuing instructions so that this is done in a way that's logical and systematic," he said.
Advocates for the poor immediately complained that state officials were creating chaos in the counties by forcing them to institute major changes affecting the poor without proper guidelines or training.
"This is a very disorderly way to run a benefits program," said Clare Pastore, an attorney with the Western Center for Law and Poverty. "One undoubted effect is going to be massive confusion and erroneous actions."
She said county workers won't know, for example, how to apply exceptions in the new law, which allow immigrants who are veterans or refugees or who have worked for 10 years to receive food stamps.
State officials conceded there is no way counties can verify this information about immigrants. For the time being, they said, the counties will have to rely on each applicant's word.
Both federal and state officials blamed each other for the confusion surrounding implementation of the nation's new welfare reform law.
This week, the state told county welfare officials that federal law required them to begin cutting off food stamp assistance to nearly 400,000 legal immigrants who currently receive the benefit, beginning next week.
A day later, however, the USDA told California to back off. Federal officials asked them to delay implementing that provision of the new law temporarily, although the state would still have to deny food stamps to new applicants who were noncitizens.
Federal authorities said they never intended to require that California implement the food stamp cutoff for current recipients so quickly and complained that state officials misinterpreted their instructions.
But the confusion became a flash point for presidential politics as California's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, accused the Clinton administration of trying to stall welfare reform until after the Nov. 5 election.
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry shot back that Wilson, a frequent critic of the federal government's immigration policy, was "not in a propitious position to make charges."
On Friday, Wilson administration officials escalated the attack, saying they had been ordered to implement the food stamp cuts to current recipients just three days after the Clinton administration had promised it would have no new instructions on food stamps.
"In issuing this instruction [to cut off food stamps] the USDA didn't consult with the state at all," said Cohen. "It came as a total surprise to us."
In Los Angeles County, the bickering between state and federal officials added to the worries and uncertainty of administrators who oversee distribution of food stamps to 1.1 million recipients each year. Of those, 215,000, or almost one in five, are legal immigrants.
"It's been very hectic," said Mary Robertson, program deputy for food stamps at the county's Department of Public Social Services. "It's changing moment by moment, and I won't say that Monday it won't change again."
Times staff writers Patrick McDonnell in Los Angeles and Martin Miller in Orange County contributed to this report.