Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest proposals to close California's budget shortfall would end public assistance for most new legal immigrants, eliminating emergency cash, food and medical aid for those who don't yet qualify for federal welfare.
The proposal would represent an about-face for the state. In 1996, Congress denied access to welfare for most legal immigrants who weren't citizens. California and other states established programs to fill the gap.
Now, officials say the state can't afford the price tag. Schwarzenegger's plan would save $304 million but leave tens of thousands of elderly, disabled and impoverished people with no safety net in a deep recession.
"How are we going to live?" asked 70-year-old Yong Hak Cho, who emigrated from Korea four years ago and is raising two grandchildren in Los Angeles. "Immigrants pay taxes like anybody else. So why do they want to eliminate programs for us? It is unfair and it is un-American."
State officials say the cuts are painful but necessary, and there was no attempt to single out any population group in the proposed budget.
"The fact that we have to close a $20-billion budget gap, on the heels of a $60-billion gap last year, means that we have had to make the difficult decision to propose curtailing or eliminating many state-only programs, and these fall into that category," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Finance Department.
When families petition to bring relatives to the U.S., they are required to sign affidavits agreeing to support them financially for up to 10 years. But many of these families have fallen on hard times. Affidavits are not required for people entering the country under various other programs.
Federal benefits have been restored to some recent arrivals, but most are not eligible for supplemental security income, food stamps, transitional assistance for needy families or Medi-Cal until they have lived legally in the U.S. for five years. Exceptions are made for refugees and a few other categories.
Only a few other states still provide cash or food aid to new, legal arrivals. Advocates for stricter immigration controls say that a waiting period to receive benefits is appropriate.
"Five years is a legitimate time to ensure that people who have come here the right way are willing to assimilate and be loyal tax-paying Americans," said Barbara Coe of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform.
The proposed cuts include:
* Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants, serving about 8,500 low-income elderly and disabled people. The projected savings is $107.3 million.
* California Food Assistance Program, which provides benefits to about 37,000 low-income immigrants, for savings of $56.2 million.
* Calworks benefits for about 24,000 new legal immigrants, for savings of $22.5 million. The program provides cash, job training, child care and other services to help families transition from welfare to work.
* Full-spectrum Medi-Cal services for 48,570 new legal immigrants and 65,000 undocumented people who tell the state they are known to immigration officials and their deportation is not being sought. The projected savings is $118 million. Pregnant women and children would still be covered.
The Legislature last year rejected proposals to eliminate some of the same programs, but many recipients have seen their benefits reduced.
UCLA professor of public health Alex Ortega said immigrants are frequently targeted in tough economic times because they can't yet vote, do not speak English well and are often poor.
"They have all the factors that contribute to being vulnerable," Ortega said.
Community activists say the budget proposals will leave many without a lifeline.
"These are elderly, often frail individuals who rely on this support to buy their medicines, pay rent and eat a basic diet," Hala Masri, a policy advocate for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said in an e-mail.
Cho is so worried that he has considered returning to Korea. But he said, "I have no roots there . . . I am American now."
The $835 in aid the family receives each month doesn't even cover rent.
After working 21 years at a U.S. military base in South Korea, Cho went back to school to learn how to repair computers. When that did not yield a job, he enrolled in English classes and became certified as a security guard. Then his son-in-law died of cancer. His daughter works long hours at a Chinese restaurant, so he took in his two grandchildren, 11 and 8.
Cho now works part-time at a community center, advising other immigrants. His wife works for a program providing in-home care to the frail and disabled, but that too is slated for cuts.
"I will have to find some other work," Cho said, staring at his tea cup on a chilly morning in Koreatown. "What company would hire an old person like me?"
The California Immigrant Policy Center argues in a new report that the savings from the proposed cuts would be offset by increased homelessness and costly emergency room use.
"Not only are these cuts not fair, they are not smart," said Reshma Shamasunder, who runs the advocacy group. "They are not going to save us money in the long run."
Teddy Lechadores, 70, who emigrated legally from the Philippines in 2007, relies on Medi-Cal to pay for dialysis. He also sees doctors for his prostate cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, and needs eight prescription medicines.
"If I were in the Philippines I would have been dead now," Lechadores said.
He was laid off last month from a security guard job. He now makes $160 a week for doing maintenance and office workat the Pilipino Workers Center west of downtown. His bank account is overdrawn, he sleeps at the center and keeps most of his belongings in his 1996 Acura, which was damaged recently when someone rear-ended him.
"I'm down to nothing," he said as he looked through his Medi-Cal forms on a recent afternoon. "Medi-Cal is very, very important."