Jewish refugees, legal immigrants to benefit from Clintons budget

WASHINGTON — Jewish refugees and legal immigrants emerged among the big winners when President Clinton unveiled his proposed $1.73 trillion budget this week.

Aiming to fulfill his promise to "fix" the 1996 welfare law that cut federal benefits to legal immigrants, Clinton proposed a $535 million food stamps program.

But for the second year in a row, the low-income elderly appear to be the losers in the opening round of the annual battle over the federal budget.

As much of Washington focused on Clinton's move to submit a balanced budget for fiscal year 1999 and on the larger-ticket items, a closer look at the nitty-gritty of the annual White House spending plan sheds light on many programs closely watched by Jewish activists.

Among other issues, Clinton's budget proposes increasing U.S. direct aid to Palestinian self-rule areas from $75 million to $100 million.

It also proposes allotting $3 billion in U.S. aid to Israel, although the level could be reduced if an Israeli plan to cut U.S. economic assistance goes into effect. It proposes reducing U.S. aid to Israel to resettle refugees from $80 million to $70 million, and funneling $24 million over four years to an international fund to aid the victims of the Holocaust.

"Overall, our community will be very pleased with the budget," said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Under the food stamps plan, refugees who do not become citizens could collect food stamps for seven years, up from the current five years.

Most Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union come to the United States as refugees, which enables them to receive special benefits, because they are assumed to be fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution. After seven years, refugees who do not become citizens are treated like other legal immigrants.

The 1996 welfare reform law eliminated food stamps for legal immigrants who are not refugees. Clinton's proposed budget restores food stamps to all needy legal immigrants with children. It also restores food stamps to disabled and elderly immigrants who were in the country prior to August 1996.

If successful, the plan would restore the last remaining major welfare benefit to some 700,000 of the most vulnerable legal immigrants who were in the United States when welfare reform became law in August 1996.

Some tens of thousands of Jewish newcomers are expected to benefit from the proposed changes.

Under laws enacted last year to counter the original welfare reform legislation, elderly and disabled legal immigrants can collect Supplemental Security Income and have access to Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people.

While the measure has some support in Congress, its passage is far from certain. Republican lawmakers immediately attacked the entire budget package, and a lengthy budget battle is likely to ensue.

Clinton's budget would pay for the changes using some of the $180 million in savings generated by administrative reforms in the food stamp program.

Despite her praise for the proposal, Aviv of CJF cautioned that immigrants still cannot benefit from other federal programs, including low-income energy assistance and low-income elderly housing.

While the budget goes a long way in fulfilling Clinton's promise to fix welfare reform, it does not do the same for low-income elderly. Activists for these individuals are lambasting Clinton's plan.

"This is not a program at all. It's patently absurd," said Mark Olshan, director of senior housing and services at B'nai B'rith.

The budget proposes spending $159 million next year on construction for new, low-income elderly housing developments.

Last year Congress stepped in to increase Clinton's proposed $300 million to $645 million. Olshan hopes that Congress will support elderly housing again.

"To say that we are meeting the needs of the low-income elderly in this country is a joke. It's laughable," said Olshan, who heads B'nai B'rith's network of 34 housing projects, which serve about 6,000 people.

Under Clinton's proposal, each state would receive a share of the $159 million.

With such little funding, he said, California alone would only be able to initiate one new housing project.

He note that a B'nai B'rith project that opened last week in North Hollywood filled up within days. "We turned away hundreds of applicants," he said.

Other Jewish activists praised parts of the budget that they follow closely.

The Anti-Defamation League commended Clinton for proposing a 17 percent increase in civil rights enforcement funding from $516 million to $602 million. This includes programs to combat discrimination in housing, education and employment.

One of Clinton's centerpiece proposals, to provide $22 billion for child care over five years, also drew widespread support in the Jewish community.

Many Jewish preschool children would qualify for low- and middle-income assistance programs, Aviv said.