Ventura County officials want to assist hundreds of elderly and disabled legal residents on federal assistance in becoming U.S. citizens, a move that could help the county avoid millions of dollars in general relief benefits.
The county estimates there are 6,000 legal residents who will lose their Social Security benefits later this year under new federal welfare reform laws.
Most immigrants attain status as legal residents when they come to this country to work or to join their families. But seeking citizenship is optional. Until now, Social Security benefits have been reserved exclusively for elderly and disabled individuals who are citizens or legal residents.
Officials fear that once legal residents lose their federal benefits, they will have only the county to turn to for help. If all legal residents were to receive county-funded general relief benefits, the cost could run as high as $21 million a year. The county's current annual general-relief budget is $730,000.
Given the potential costs, officials are proposing to spend $30,000 to contract with El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a nonprofit Latino-advocacy group, to conduct an aggressive citizenship outreach program.
"We believe this is in the county's best interest because of the very likelihood that these legal residents, having no other means of support, will turn to the county," said Helen Reburn, deputy director of the county's Public Social Services Agency.
"I think it is important to note that these are legal residents," Reburn said. "Many of them work, and they pay taxes and Social Security."
County Supervisors John K. Flynn, Frank Schillo and Kathy Long said they support the proposal. Supervisors Judy Mikels and Susan Lacey could not be reached for comment.
"I think it's a situation of pay me now or pay me later," Long said. "Also, these are elderly and disabled people. I don't support a policy that turns its back on folks who are already at a difficult point in their lives."
Schillo said he supported the program simply because it provided a convenience to legal residents who reside in the county. He said El Concilio in the past has arranged for applicants to obtain their citizenship here, rather than traveling to Los Angeles County.
"I think it's a good idea to have this service available in the county," he said.
El Concilio, which already conducts citizenship workshops, would boost its advertising campaign on local radio stations and mailings as part of the county outreach program, officials said.