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NEXT LA | Ahead of the Curve

The Great Social Laboratory

With a vast immigrant and poor population, L.A. County faces as severe a test under welfare reform as any place in the U.S. Both newcomers and people already here--even legally--are affected.


In a generation, Los Angeles County has become one of the most diverse population centers anywhere. Mass immigration has drastically altered its demographic makeup, creating bustling new enclaves of settlers from Central America and Southeast Asia, Mexico, South Korea and the former Soviet Union, among many other places.

Some celebrate this polyglot diversity. Others deplore it.

But even if the immigrant flow were abruptly shut off--an unlikely prospect any time soon--that would not alter the multicultural face of the new L.A. Today, the county is home to about 3.2 million foreign-born people--a larger immigrant population than is found in any entire state except California itself. More than one in three of the county's estimated 9.4 million residents were born abroad; the national average is closer to one in 11.

For better or worse, the fate of the sprawling megalopolis is entwined with that of its immigrant population, whose numbers include many of today's wage-earners and entrepreneurs, and the parents of the next generation of Southern Californians.

But the national disquiet with high immigration has spawned a series of sweeping new federal laws that some see as punitive toward immigrants, even those here legally. Best known is the new welfare statute, but Congress' recent overhaul of immigration law also has wide-ranging implications here.

With its large population of immigrants and poor people, Los Angeles County stands to lose more than anyplace else. Some fear further social fragmentation in an area where many already despair of ethnic hostilities and there are vast disparities in income distribution.

"L.A. County will face the severest test," said Fernando Torres-Gil, a UCLA professor of social welfare and former Clinton administration aide who views the unfolding social challenges here as a instructive look into the nation's future. "No place in the country is facing as rapid a change or is moving as quickly into the new millennium. . . .

"We are the great social laboratory."

Shellshocked county officials, while acknowledging difficult times ahead, are avoiding apocalyptic scenarios as they assess the damage and devise ways to mitigate the worst. As a first line of defense, the county has embarked on an unprecedented program encouraging legal immigrants to sign up for citizenship, thus shielding them from cuts in services.

In Washington, some lawmakers and activists are pressuring the White House to restore cuts for legal immigrants, though a Republican-controlled Congress would have to approve them. County officials are also pushing the Wilson administration to refrain from exercising new options that would further pare federal health and service benefits for legal immigrants.

"If appropriate action is not taken at the state and federal levels, the impact on Los Angeles County will be extremely grave and widespread," said Phil Ansell, a county welfare strategist.

In slashing benefits for legal immigrants, members of Congress pointedly avoided speaking against newcomers who "play by the rules" and instead focused on cost-cutting--the estimated $20 billion to $30 billion saved over six years on legal immigrants accounts for about 40% of the overall projected congressional welfare savings. During the same congressional session, bipartisan opposition doomed efforts to cut legal immigration levels.

In Los Angeles County alone, about 250,000 permanent legal immigrants--many of them aged or disabled--face loss of federal checks or food stamps next year, generating massive new pressure on an already frayed health care and social service infrastructure. Some could be thrown out on the streets, swelling the homeless population. Many are likely to end up on county general relief, straining that program.

Thousands of other, temporary legal immigrants, such as political asylum applicants and others with provisional statuses, are also looking at a loss of cash and health benefits, while being newly barred from sundry services.

And most newly arriving legal immigrants will be banned from the social safety net for at least five years; their sponsors, usually relatives, will be legally liable for the cost of their care.

Along with the human toll, the county will lose, at a minimum, more than half a billion dollars in purchasing power because of slashed cash benefits, according to county estimates. Local businesses--such as grocery stores and restaurants, from the mom-and-pop variety to national chains--will feel that crunch.

Illegal immigrants have long been barred from most big-ticket benefit programs, but the welfare overhaul marginalizes them even more, granting states authority to ban them--along with many thousands in temporary legal statuses--from services such as prenatal care and from enrollment in public colleges and universities.

Immigrant mothers and children could even be barred from receiving federal nutrition aid.

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