Activists fear welfare reform could hurt immigrants

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jewish activists are looking to President Clinton as a last line of defense against welfare reform legislation that would bar thousands of refugees and other legal immigrants from receiving government benefits.

Jewish communal organizations, already financially strapped, are concerned about how they could still offer health care, nutritional assistance and other vital services now provided to Jewish refugees by the government.

The Senate approved comprehensive welfare reform Tuesday that would, among other things, give states wide new discretion in spending; require welfare recipients in general to work after two years; limit their benefits to a maximum of five years.

The Senate passed the overhaul bill by more than the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto. The House passed the measure last week and President Clinton is expected to get the bill in August.

Clinton has sent mixed signals on the bill, which would end the long-standing federal guarantee of assistance to the poor, and it remains unclear whether he would sign it.

Both bills would reduce federal welfare spending during the next six years by $59 billion. About half the reductions would come by limiting benefits to refugees after their first five years in the United States. Cuts would also come from ending benefits for legal immigrants other than refugees, no matter how long they have lived here, if they have not become U.S. citizens.

Jewish activists are concerned about the impact of the reform on Jewish refugees who have come to America from the former Soviet Union, as well as those seeking to emigrate.

In 1995, nearly 22,000 Jewish refugees arrived from the former Soviet Union, while others came from Iran and Eastern Europe. More than 30,000 Jewish refugees are expected to arrive in 1996.

Refugees are considered immigrants, but they are afforded special status because they are presumed to be fleeing a "well-founded fear of persecution."

As a result, refugees are entitled to certain benefits such as cash assistance for resettling in the United States not available to other immigrants. Such benefits would not be affected by welfare reform.

But refugees, as well as other legal immigrants in need, have long been entitled to benefits available to U.S. citizens, including Medicaid, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income and food stamps.

The welfare reform bills would bar refugees from receiving those benefits after five years. While many refugees would again be entitled to government benefits once they become citizens, they could be cut off while waiting for citizenship applications to be processed.

The situation poses a serious problem, activists say, because refugees must wait five years before they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, a process that frequently takes at least six months.

Aware of this, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has undertaken a major effort in the past year to help as many refugees as possible become citizens by aiding the Immigration and Naturalization Service in processing applications and swearing-in ceremonies.

The welfare reform provisions concerning legal immigrants would be even more restrictive. Jews who came more than 10 years ago from the former Soviet Union arrived as legal immigrants, not as refugees.

Those immigrants still receiving government benefits would lose access to Medicaid, SSI and food stamps unless they can demonstrate that they or their spouses had worked and paid federal income taxes for 10 years or more.

That provision would exclude many elderly Jewish immigrants who have not become citizens and who have depended on government aid.

If the welfare reform bill becomes law, nearly 1 million legal immigrants awaiting citizenship would lose their Medicaid, about 1 million would lose food stamps and a half million would lose their SSI, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"This legislation is certainly not what our religious charities and synagogues and churches — with decades of experience doing extraordinary work assisting the poor — consider welfare reform," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"These institutions will be crippled by such far-reaching cuts," Saperstein added. "Already overloaded and underfunded, they cannot be expected to fill the vacuum created by these massive cutbacks in government services."

The effort to overhaul welfare marks the third time this Congress has taken action on such legislation. Clinton has already vetoed two earlier welfare reform bills.

Under pressure to sign reform legislation after running for office in 1992 promising to "end welfare as we know it," Clinton reiterated his desire this week to "sign legislation that does move people from welfare to work."

But he has voiced objections to the current reform bill, one of which is that it goes too far in denying most federal benefits to legal immigrants.

Moving to make the bill more acceptable to Clinton, the Senate on Tuesday eliminated a provision that would have given states control of the food stamps program. The Senate also voted to continue current Medicaid health benefits for poor women and children.

But lawmakers turned back an effort led by California's Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to roll back a portion of the bill denying benefits to legal immigrants now in the United States.

The White House said it was pleased with the Senate's accommodations on food stamps and Medicaid.

Jewish activists, meanwhile, see the new bills as more stringent than those Clinton already vetoed and are urging him to kill welfare reform outright. Short of that, they are urging him to stand firm in his objections to the legal immigrant and food stamp provisions — with hopes of securing, in the words of one, a "less Draconian" bill.

"We are looking to the president to make some very clear and unequivocal statement that he will sign a bill only if certain provisions are improved," said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation's Washington Action Office.