Welfare Reform and Immigrants

The law that Democratic President Bill Clinton signed under pressure from the Republican Congress on August 22, 1996, was elegantly named “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.”

Before Clinton signed it, the Democrats focused on incentives to hire welfare clients and thorough assistance for families moving to paid employment. In particular, they insisted the government pay for transportation, childcare, Medicaid, and some food stamps for the first five years after moving off welfare. In addition, Democrats wanted to increase professional development programs, job placement, and free English language classes. For their part, Republicans proposed punitive sanctions against those receiving social benefits, including five-year time limits on welfare benefits, a prohibition on benefit increases to single mothers who give birth to another child, and the discontinuation of federal programs (Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, Medicaid) to legal immigrants. Both parties came out for the introduction of welfare work requirements – from 30 to 35 hours a week, with minor exceptions.

On September 30, 2002, the U.S. Congress must pass a new welfare law. I recall that, in 1996, only the titanic efforts of Congressional Democrats, the National Immigration Forum, the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, and the efforts of other immigrant organizations in many states made it possible to amend the Personal Responsibility Act. But even now, legal immigrants who arrived in the United States after August 22, 1996 don’t have the right to Social Security, the federal food stamps program, Medicaid or Medicare. Even refugees—granted an exception for the period of the first seven years after their arrival—are in danger. On August 22, 2003, refugees could lose their SSI and Medicaid if they have not become American citizens. (Those who arrived before then are still eligible.)

In early February, more than 100 activists from 32 welfare rights and immigrant organizations from 25 states brought together by GROWL—Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership—arrived in Washington to lobby Congress. Activists, defenders of the interests of welfare recipients want their voices to be heard in state capitols, in the Capitol in Washington, and in the White House. GROWL invited the Independent Press Association—New York, of which the newspaper Forward is a member, to take part. And so your correspondent, who was the only Russian-speaker, found himself in the group of GROWL delegates charged with submitting new amendments to the law on welfare reform.

The majority of GROWL activists are Latinos and African-Americans. However, many questions discussed in the course of meetings with legislators and surfaced in the briefing to Congress directly affect the vital interests of our community.

Could we really be indifferent to whether limits will be revoked on federal social programs for older, non-U.S. citizens? Do we really think there are only a small number of Russian-speaking immigrants who receive welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid? Do we really have no need for free English classes? And could anyone really disagree with GROWL’s assertion that many poor people don’t know their rights, and are not informed about the assistance available? Language discrimination in welfare offices does not only affect those who have left Asia or Latin America. Hence, I lament the virtual breakdown of the powerful international organizations of our immigrants – the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union, which was the primary initiator of the 1997 march on Washington.

But let’s return to GROWL and welfare reform. Representatives submitted four bills which would make radical amendments. They were introduced by Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Nadia Velasquez (D-N.Y.), Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). The most radical bill is brought by Velasquez. Her “Welfare Recipients Lifeline Act of 2002” would end the five-year limit for some, and eliminate all restrictions on federal social programs for immigrants. In the Senate, an analogous bill was submitted for consideration by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) and Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

In the Senate, where the Democrats have a majority, the idea of defending indigent legal immigrants is relatively popular. But in the Republican-majority House, such amendments are seen as misguided generosity during a very expensive war. The White House and Republican leaders support a decrease in financial assistance with welfare to states, and for the continuation of the five-year limit on welfare, with a further two-year limits on SSI, Medicaid, food stamps and Medicare for non-U.S. citizens who arrived in the country after August 22, 1996.

The legislators’ moods were easy to read as their aides met with GROWL delegates. For example, at Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) office, guests were promised all kinds of assistance. The GROWL delegation encountered full understanding and sympathy in the offices of Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Jane Schakowsky (D-Ill.). In Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) office, Spanish-speaking GROWL activists were advised to “learn English better.”

The GROWL briefing was attended by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and the aides of six Republican representatives, among them Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), chairman of the important human resources subcommittee. Kucinich, representing the liberal-progressive wing in the House, supported GROWL’s proposal and called on Congress to take up the issue of welfare reform. “It is the responsibility of Congress to provide working, low-income people with health insurance and free child care,” he said, in combination with education for welfare recipients (that includes courses in professional development, GED, ESL, studies in Business School, etc.). Similar measures have a much greater effect in the struggle with poverty than limits on the time one can receive welfare, or sanctions against legal immigrants.

“As long as Congress and the White House are managed – through millions in donations and electoral funds – by the Enrons, the tobacco companies and the Microsofts,” said Conyers, “there will be nothing to say about genuine welfare reform. Instead, millions that should be invested in education, health insurance, and help for the unemployed will be given away by the government in the form of enormous tax advantages for big corporations,” he declared.

Laura Barrera, a delegate from the Los Angeles Coalition for the Defense of the Rights of Immigrants, offered an example of the inhumanity poor immigrants often face. She told the story of Spanish-speaking immigrant Marisela Ron. She and her husband worked, but their jobs did not provide health care. Because of welfare reform, Medicaid wasn’t available to them. When their older daughter Atali needed medical care, the family barely managed to find a charity fund to pay the $5,000 for an MRI and other tests. When Ron herself urgently needed medical care in the fourth month of her pregnancy, the hospital was in no hurry to stop her blood loss, and as a result, she lost her baby.

No one knows how the fight over the rights of the indigent in this time of economic recession and the war on terrorism will turn out. We hope that the efforts of rights and immigrant organizations, articles in newspapers, and mass protests will bear fruit. We must not deprive older legal immigrants of the means to survive because they do not know English. We must not deprive good, successful students of the opportunity to study. And we must not use the desire to fight bin Laden as an excuse not to fight poverty.

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