Legal Immigrants Fearful Of Proposed Welfare Cutoff
Juana Rosa Pinares, turned down for U.S. citizenship last year, will lose her food money. Mirna Flores, who can’t apply for citizenship for another three years, may never realize her dream of becoming a nurse.
At stake for Pinares, Flores and thousands of other legal immigrants are their federal welfare benefits, which will be cut off under legislation approved by Congress last week.
The law is expected to push many to apply to become Americans. Petitions for naturalization have surged in the past 18 months for several reasons, including the debate over welfare reform and other measures that take aim at immigrants.
The changes will start in stages as soon as President Clinton signs the bill, which he said he will do.
“One lady is saying God will take care of her. Other people say the government is going to put them in boats and send them back to Cuba,” said Ariela Rodriguez, a director of Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers of Dade County. “Some say they’ll live under bridges. Some say they’ll commit suicide.”
Pinares is a client of Rodriguez’s group, a private organization that provides social services for the elderly. The 67-year-old widow said she lives off $489 monthly checks from her late husband’s retirement pension. To eat, she depends on $67 per month in food stamps.
Pinares, a Cuban, applied for U.S. citizenship last year but was rejected because her English wasn’t good enough. She said she is studying English and will try again. But in the meantime, she doesn’t know how she will buy food.
“How am I going to eat?” said Pinares, tears filling her eyes.
Flores, a 33-year-old divorced mother of three, came here as a political refugee from Nicaragua 10 years ago. She plans to start nursing courses this fall so she will be able to support her family without the monthly $390 in public assistance she now needs.
Flores wants to apply for citizenship but isn’t eligible yet because she has been a permanent resident for only two years. Flores said she will have to skip school and get a second job if her income is cut.
“My goal is to study and prepare myself,” she said. “But if the government cuts off the aid to my family, they are cutting off my future and the future of my children.”
The legislation will save the federal government money but burden states with large immigrant populations, such as California, Florida and New York.
“The implications for California are tremendous,” said state Assemblyman Louis Caldera, a Democrat from Los Angeles. “The needs don’t go away, the source of revenue goes away. It’s a false illusion to think the government will save dollars this way.”
When Clinton said last week he would sign the welfare reform package, he pledged to propose amendments to restore assistance to legal immigrants. But he didn’t say when and his chances don’t look good in the current Congress.
Exempted from the cuts will be immigrants who are honorably discharged U.S. veterans and their dependents, and those who have worked here and paid into the Social Security system for 10 years. Refugees and people granted asylum from troubles in their homeland will be limited to five years of welfare.
Medicaid for health emergencies will continue for all poor people, citizens or not.
There are 9.5 million legal, permanent-resident non-citizens in the United States, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Just under half live in California.
Some 2 million non-citizens receive food stamps, 800,000 receive Supplemental Security Income and 640,000 receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, according to the federal agencies that administer the programs.
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