Would-be U.S. citizens facing new hurdles from Washington

WASHINGTON — Immigrants to America took a double hit from Washington last week when a plan to restore food stamps hit a snag in Congress at the same time that the Clinton administration erected new hurdles in the citizenship process.

In an effort to eliminate fraud in the citizenship process, the Immigration and Naturalization Service announced that it would no longer allow independent groups to administer the written civics test required of many would-be citizens.

For tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, the change will complicate their efforts to achieve citizenship, immigrant activists say.

Without citizenship, immigrants cannot vote or participate fully in American society. In addition, the desire for citizenship has intensified over the past few years in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform law, which cut off access to many social services for non-citizen immigrants and refugees.

Since that time, there has been a flood of citizenship applications from all immigrant groups.

Jewish organizations in virtually every community with an immigrant population administer the test — to both Jews and non-Jews — in an effort to ease the process.

Starting in September, only the INS will be authorized to give the civics test, which evaluates basic knowledge of American history and laws.

More than 1.7 million immigrants are awaiting action on their applications in a backlog that has reached up to two years in many cities, according to INS figures.

Although the number of Jews fleeing to the United States from the former Soviet Union has dropped from a peak of 46,000 annually in 1992 to an estimated 12,000 in 1998, the pool of applicants for citizenship continues to increase.

Since many of the Jewish applicants are frail and elderly, Jewish social service agencies have labored to make the citizenship process as easy as possible. The process is easier, experts say, if applicants only have to go to the INS for their final interview and can take the test elsewhere.

Immigrant advocates fear that the change could stop many refugees from working toward citizenship.

Most Jewish emigrants 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.

But these benefits eventually run out. And there is concern that local Jewish communities would have to step in to provide basic needs and services that refugees would be eligible for if they became citizens.

No national statistics exist on the number of tests given by Jewish agencies, but officials estimate that Jewish agencies administer tens of thousands of such tests each year.

"Nobody knows what the impact of this will be," said Gary Rubin, assistant executive vice president for public policy at the New York Association of New Americans.

"This is a huge problem for us," said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

Both Aviv and Rubin also expressed concern that the backlog of applications would increase as a result of INS having to administer all the civics tests.

With new hurdles facing those applying for citizenship, Jewish activists are continuing to focus their efforts on restoring welfare benefits for non-citizens.

Against this backdrop, the food stamp battle has taken on renewed importance. The 1996 welfare reform law eliminated food stamps for all non-refugee, legal immigrants. In some cases, states have stepped in to fill the void.

More than 150 leaders from local federations and their social service agencies came to Capitol Hill last week to press their lawmakers to return food stamp eligibility to poor immigrants and refugees affected by the 1996 law.

President Clinton and some members of Congress have proposed using part of the $1.8 billion saved over five years by a more efficient administration of the food stamp program to return food stamps to some immigrants whose benefits were eliminated.

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

After seven years, refugees who do not become citizens are treated like other legal immigrants.

Clinton's proposal, found in his recent budget, also would restore food stamps to all needy legal immigrants with children, and would restore 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 would be expected to benefit from the proposed changes.

During their lobbying visits last week, Jewish federation officials met with every key player in the effort and "found very broad support" for efforts to restore food stamps, Aviv said.

But the group was unable to convince any lawmaker to take the lead in an upcoming meeting between House and Senate negotiators on the issue. That was a "a great disappointment to us" and leaves uncertain the fate of the proposals, said Aviv.