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Assembly Split on Immigrants' Citizenship Aid

May 18, 1997|MAX VANZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Evoking the specter of California's elderly immigrants left bereft of government assistance, both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers agree that now would be a good time to help a vulnerable population along on the journey to American citizenship.

Tens of thousands of the most needy and most elderly in the state's legal immigrant population could lose federal benefits in coming months although lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento are debating several proposals to avert at least some of the cutoff.

But the surest way to safeguard benefits would be for the immigrants to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Accordingly, what the legislators offer are state funds to assist applicants as they face the final, often most difficult, obstacle to citizenship--passing the examination testing their knowledge of U.S. institutions.

Although there was bipartisan agreement during an Assembly debate last week that the state should have a role in preparing applicants for the test, when it came to putting up the money for a helping-hand program, consensus collapsed.

Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) offered a bill appropriating $20 million to pay instruction centers such as community colleges $100 for every immigrant student who makes the grade to naturalization.

"We're talking about helping [needy immigrants] over that one last stop before becoming a citizen," Knox said. "What could be more American than that?"

But Republicans rejected the Knox proposal as excessive, contending that $5 million would be "more than generous" in reaching all who needed the instruction.

Minority Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) says Assembly Democrats were engaging in a "political drill" that overstated the scope, and therefore the cost, of what is needed.

Pringle cited federal estimates that as many as 60% of those classified as elderly can requalify as disabled as well and continue to receive benefits even if they are noncitizens. Furthermore, he said, Gov. Pete Wilson proposes funds for naturalization assistance during the next fiscal year beginning in July.

Knox's bill, drafted to take effect immediately upon enactment, lost 50 to 19 on the Assembly floor Thursday, four votes shy of the two-thirds necessary for passage.

Knox then modified the bill that may be voted on perhaps as early as Monday. He changed the measure so that it would not take effect until next year--a move that means it could pass with just 41 votes. That goal is considered obtainable but would probably be ineffectual because no money for the naturalization instruction program would be forthcoming until after the benefits end.

Agreement between Assembly Democrats and Republicans broke down over the scope of the problem presented by federal rules mandating a cutoff of cash benefits and food stamps for poor legal immigrants--except for the blind and disabled, who would be exempt from the cuts.

Led by Knox and some Latino Democrats, supporters argued for $20 million for the instruction program based on various estimates of those in the vast immigrant community who, on Oct. 1, each stand to lose cash grants of $640 per month.

Estimates of those threatened with federal benefit cuts in California range from more than 100,000 immigrants, according to some Assembly Democrats, to 60,000 calculated by the federal Office of Management and Budget.

In Los Angeles County, 88,000 elderly and disabled legal immigrants receive federal benefits that they stood to lose under federal welfare reform. Now, with the disabled apparently spared from the cut, there will still be about 26,000 who would be left with no benefits after the Oct. 1 cutoff date, according to county officials.

Lending further urgency to helping immigrants become citizens, said Knox, is the proposed cutoff of food stamps for all legal immigrants who receive them--disabled included--beginning Aug. 23. Up to 430,000 in California could be affected, according to state estimates.

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