Welfare reform scares Bay Area emigres

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Fear is becoming epidemic in the Bay Area emigre community following President Clinton's decision to sign a welfare-reform bill that promises to cut benefits to legal immigrants.

The legislation has "created a real emergency situation" for emigres, according to Gayle Zahler, director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services' emigre resettlement office.

The Republican-sponsored bill calls for sweeping changes in such programs as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), welfare (with the exception of Medicaid), food stamps, child care, and use of Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Supporters of the bill are hailing it as a break from the idea of welfare-as-entitlement, and claim that, by signing it, Clinton is keeping his 1992 campaign promise to "end welfare as we know it."

Social service professionals, on the other hand, contend that elderly emigres will be hit especially hard since they depend most heavily on those programs.

Of the 30,000 to 35,000 emigres from the former Soviet Union living in the Bay Area, 20 percent are 65 or older. The pending legislation will leave many of them scrambling to pay for food, rent and health care, the professionals said.

"They're panicking. They're learning as much as possible" so they can pass the citizenship exam, according to Alla Pecheny, immigration specialist at Jewish Family and Children's Services of the Greater East Bay. "But sometimes it's impossible. One woman here can't even see [to read the questions]."

The Bay Area is one of the country's major destinations for Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union, second only to New York.

Since July 31, when Clinton announced he would sign the bill, phones have been ringing off the hook at the S.F.-based JFCS' emigre department.

"The way this legislation comes down is, it targets those who have come here legally and have done nothing wrong," said Zahler. "These people came here with certain expectations. They came here legally and now they're being treated differently.

"It's created a real emergency situation for some very vulnerable people."

Even young immigrants with high earning potential will be affected as the benefits they initially need will be cut back if Clinton signs the legislation.

Today, Jewish emigres from the former Soviet Union enter the United States legally as religious and political refugees. Their status entitles them to full work authorization, medical benefits and food stamps. They can begin receiving indefinite financial aid after four months. Under the new legislation, their special status will expire after five years, when they become eligible for citizenship and would no longer get SSI.

The new law actually would wipe out all welfare benefits except Medicaid within the next five years for all immigrants. It mandates that welfare recipients must work after two years, and enforces five-year limits.

In addition, the bill abolishes AFDC as a federal entitlement program — sending block grants to individual states instead. It reduces spending on food stamps but increases spending on child care.

The bill also places a ban on SSI, which emigres cannot access. They must count their sponsors' income as their own for five years and, therefore, are often ineligible.

However, refugees from the former Soviet Union do not need sponsors to enter the country, and many of them use SSI as supplemental income.

SSI is also the only way emigres can currently access Medicaid. At this point, it is still unclear whether that process will be altered or if they will be barred from those services as well.

Pecheny admits that most refugees from the former Soviet Union are off welfare within three years. And of the 150 to 200 entering the United States and receiving aid through the East Bay's JFCS each year, 90 percent apply and become citizens within the minimum five years.

Young immigrants who attain citizenship no doubt will struggle during their first years without welfare benefits, she said. By the time they obtain citizenship and are eligible for SSI under the new law, "they probably won't need it," she noted.

"Welfare reform is OK for the young immigrants. They'll be fine. But not the older ones."

According to Zahler, the most fearful emigres are the 5 to 10 percent not likely to pass the citizenship exam. "We're trying to avoid panic but people are very scared," she reiterated.

Among the most fearful, she continued, are developmentally disabled individuals and older emigres who have problems learning English — the very people who need aid most.

If they fail the citizenship exam, she said, "I don't know how these people are going to survive, how they will pay their rent or get other than emergency medical care.

"There are no exemptions based on age or illness built into this legislation."

To help allay some of the emigres' fears, Zahler's agency mails statements in Russian to its clients about changes in immigration law and benefits to emigres.

The S.F.-based JFCS is also expanding its citizenship program, which prepares about 1,000 clients each year for the citizenship exam, and is working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to schedule processing in numerous locations to naturalize as many emigres as possible.

According to Reuters, Clinton aides said the president was concerned over some features of the bill but thought the law could be modified later if necessary.

Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Jewish Women have issued statements opposing the legislation.