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California and the West

Food Stamp Eligibility to Be Restored for 250,000

Aid: House OKs measure already approved by Senate. Clinton is expected to sign it. The action, a benefit for legal immigrants, is a retreat from the federal welfare overhaul law.

June 05, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to election-year pressure from farmers and immigrant groups, the House voted Thursday to restore federal food stamp eligibility to a quarter of a million needy legal immigrants--mostly children, the elderly and disabled--who were dropped from the program last year as part of the sweeping welfare overhaul.

The lawmakers took the food stamp action--restoring an estimated $818 million in benefits over five years--as part of a $1.9-billion agricultural bill, which includes funding for farm research, crop insurance and other issues of interest to rural lawmakers.

The Senate has already passed identical legislation, and President Clinton has indicated his intention to sign the bill into law.

Benefiting most from the legislation will be residents of California, where 100,000 legal immigrant noncitizens will probably regain their eligibility for federally funded food vouchers. Eligible families in California receive an average of about $192 a month in food stamps.

The action marks a second major congressional retreat on 1996's far-reaching overhaul of the federal welfare system, following last year's decision to restore partial eligibility for legal immigrants receiving disability payments and Medicaid health coverage. The welfare law achieved billions of dollars in savings by targeting aid for legal immigrants, but advocates mobilized a successful political campaign to win back a sizable share of the aid.

Thursday's House vote sets the stage for a new series of battles in statehouses from Sacramento to Albany, N.Y., as legislators decide whether to fund food stamp benefits for the many poor legal immigrants still shut out after the congressional action. The bill failed to restore eligibility for most of the 935,000 legal resident noncitizens who lost benefits, mostly adults ages 18 to 64.

Since the federal cutoff went into effect last fall, many states, including California and New York, have created state-funded plans that have continued food vouchers for vulnerable groups, including the young and the elderly. But now that federal funds will probably be available anew for children and those 65 and older, states will come under pressure to redirect their nutrition-aid money toward working-age adults and other legal immigrants still denied food stamps.

"There's still a lot of people going hungry, but states have the opportunity to alleviate that," said Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza, which was among a number of ethnic groups pushing hard for benefit restoration. "We hope California and other states step up to the plate."

However, Gov. Pete Wilson and other Republicans in California are opposed to legislation sponsored by Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) that would expand food stamp coverage to eligible noncitizen adults ages 18 to 64, among others.

"We want to keep this narrowly defined to the most vulnerable populations," said Sean Walsh, a spokesman for Wilson. "To have a wholesale state takeover of the federal government's responsibility is unrealistic."

Also, the gubernatorial spokesman said that state officials would have to examine the congressional plan more closely, because much of the new federal money comes from cuts in what Washington pays the states to administer the program.

In Congress, Republican critics argued that the food stamp restoration was a rollback of welfare reform. But farm groups, anti-hunger advocates and immigrant activists formed a potent coalition that brought together rural and urban interests and assailed lawmakers for failing to move on the bill.

On Thursday, the House brushed aside a last-minute procedural effort to block passage and voted 364-50 to approve the entire measure.

White House spokesman Barry Toiv said: "This legislation not only supports farmers but fulfills the commitment made by the president when he signed welfare reform into law to restore the unnecessary and mean-spirited benefit cuts for legal immigrants contained in that legislation."

The congressional bill restores food stamp eligibility to children, the elderly and disabled legal immigrant noncitizens who were settled in the United States by Aug. 22, 1996, the day the federal welfare overhaul was signed into law. Immigrants arriving after that date remain ineligible.

Congress also allowed refugees and people who have received political asylum to receive food stamps for seven years after their arrival; that extends the five-year food voucher cutoff to give them more time to become U.S. citizens. In addition, Congress restored food stamp eligibility for Hmong refugees, who were U.S. allies in Southeast Asia, and to certain Indian groups who cross back and forth along the U.S.-Mexico and Canada borders.

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