YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Nation

White House to Try to Restore Food Aid to Legal Immigrants


WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, seeking to put a gentle face on an austere domestic budget for next year, said Wednesday that it would propose restoring food stamp benefits to 363,000 legal immigrants who lost them under welfare reform.

The move, long sought by congressional Democrats and advocates for the poor, came as the White House finishes up a spending plan that is expected to provide little growth for most domestic programs, while strongly expanding areas of defense and anti-terrorism. A major emerging theme on Capitol Hill this year is a Democratic claim that last spring's tax cut is siphoning off funds needed in such areas as health care and social services for the poor during hard economic times.

"It certainly would be a move in the right direction to restore [food stamp] benefits for vulnerable, hard-working people," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington. She described the White House proposal as "a very important ingredient in moving in the direction we need to go."

The announcement comes amid a recession that has exacerbated hunger and homelessness in many areas of the country, sparking new appeals for federal help. A survey of more than 20 major cities by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for emergency food aid increased 23% in the year ending Oct. 31.

The signs of distress are a striking turnabout. Food stamp rolls plunged from 25.5 million in 1996, when Congress toughened the welfare rules, to below 17 million early last year. But in 2001 the rolls began to expand, jumping to 18.4 million by October, the most recent month for which statistics are available.

"These food stamp benefits were denied by Congress in 1996, and it's long past time to correct that injustice," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a statement Wednesday supporting the White House decision. "Legal immigrants are respected and contributing members of our society, and they deserve this assistance."

In a briefing for reporters, administration officials said the proposal would apply to legal immigrants who have been in the United States for at least five years. The estimated cost is $2.1 billion over the next decade. The measure, which does not include a work requirement, will be part of the White House budget proposals for fiscal 2003 to be unveiled early next month.

"Restoring benefits to legal immigrants was the right thing to do. It's time to do it," said a senior administration official, noting that the recommendation was part of a larger initiative to make the food stamp program "more accessible to those in need."

Congress Removed Benefits in 1996

In one of the more contentious skirmishes of the 1996 welfare reform debate, Congress took away food stamp eligibility for most noncitizens, cutting off benefits for 838,000 legal immigrants. Two years later, Congress partially rolled back the prohibition for certain groups of children, senior citizens and the disabled, bringing an estimated 200,000 immigrants back onto the rolls.

As some see it, the rising political attractiveness of restoring food stamps for immigrants has coincided with the rising political clout of immigrant communities. At the time of the 1996 benefit cutoff, immigrant issues were seen as mostly affecting population centers in such states as California, Texas, New York and Florida. California became one of several states to establish its own program of food stamps for ineligible immigrants.

But the 2000 census underscored the reality that immigrants are settling in growing numbers throughout the country, altering the terms of the debate.

"We're pleased and gratified that the president has moved on this issue," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization. "He has courted the Hispanic community very strenuously and very aggressively before the election and since the election. We've always said that he needs to match the rhetoric with substance--and we're pleased that he's beginning to do so."

Noting support on Capitol Hill for the measure, including that of Republican senators, Yzaguirre said: "Whether [Bush] is following or he's leading, he's doing the right thing."

Others said it would take more than an occasional overture from the White House to capture significant new support among Latino voters.

"Anything the White House can do to make the Republican Party more appealing to Hispanics would benefit candidates in 2002 and in 2004, when the president runs for reelection," said Stuart Rothenberg, a political analyst in Washington. But, he added, "Republicans have deep problems among Hispanic and minority voters in general. If this is just one isolated thing, I think it will be quickly forgotten."

Even some who were pleased by the move wondered about the timing of the announcement and whether the administration was seeking to gain favorable publicity for a budget that may be less generous in other areas of social spending.

Los Angeles Times Articles