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Clinton’s Welfare-reform Proposal Sparks Worry Among Jewish Activists

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Jewish organizations are preparing a vigorous campaign against President Clinton’s proposal to help fund welfare reform by reducing benefits to immigrants.

At the same time, Russian emigre communities around the country are reportedly in a panic, with new immigrants scrambling to figure out what the changes will mean for them.

“This is a horrific proposal that undermines immigration policy as a way to fund welfare reform,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington Action Office.

“This would create an undue burden and hardship that’s impossible to meet,” she said.

Clinton unveiled his welfare reform proposal in Kansas City, Mo., last week.

Although short of his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” the plan outlines new measures to help wean impoverished families off welfare, including job training, child care and subsidized work programs.

To help pay for the plan, Clinton has proposed cutting aid directly to immigrants and indirectly to refugees, threatening entitlements for tens of thousands of newcomers each year, including thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

Under the current system, most Jewish emigres from the Soviet Union arrive in the United States under the sponsorship of a previously arrived family member, who promises to support the newcomer for up to three years.

PLAN EXTENDS SPONSORSHIP PERIOD

Families earning more than $38,500 would be responsible for immigrant relatives for 10 years, according to Clinton’s proposals.

During the sponsorship period, no food stamps, social security insurance, Medicaid or funds through Aid to Families with Dependent Children are available unless the combined family income is lower than the national poverty level.

Under Clinton’s proposal, Medicaid funding would still kick in after the original three years, but the other assistance programs would not be available until after five years.

The president’s plan includes a six-year exemption for refugees, or those who are admitted into the country by demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution in their homeland.

However, while the refugees are eligible to enter the welfare system for six years, if the welfare system is revamped to reduce eligibility to two years, as the president has proposed, then refugees, like other welfare recipients will only be eligible for the benefits for a limited time.

Thus, Jewish activists say that it is misleading to think that Jews arriving from the former Soviet Union, most of whom arrive on refugee status, will not be affected by Clinton’s proposals.

Thus Jewish organizations are gearing up for grass-roots lobbying efforts to oppose the plan.

“We feel that three years is an enormous burden. How can you bring your parents and other relatives here and take responsibility for them for five years?” said Aviv of CJF.

CJF has sent a letter to Clinton outlining its concerns on this issue.

Lynn Lyss, chairwoman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, agreed that extending the sponsorship period would place a burden on families already in the United States.

“We firmly reject financing mechanisms which assist one needy group by denying benefits to another,” Lyss said.

“These measures will close the doors to a large number of elderly immigrant parents seeking to reunite with their U.S. citizen families,” she said.

The United States currently admits 700,000 immigrants and 121,000 refugees each year.

Since Oct. 1, 22,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union have arrived.

The ensuing battle over funding for welfare reform could place Jewish groups in the uncomfortable position of fighting legislation that includes other welfare-related proposals they have supported for years.

Still, they are standing firm.

‘THE PLAN IS PUNITIVE’

“None of these laudable, even urgent initiatives should be allowed to come at the expense of denying appropriate federal assistance to non-citizens,” said Martin Hochbaum, director of the American Jewish Congress’ Commission on National Affairs.

Mimi Alperin, chairwoman of American Jewish Committee’s National Affairs Commission, said, “The administration’s financing plan is punitive and punishes young immigrant families.”

In the Russian-speaking community itself, reports of the proposed changes have set off shockwaves, according to Mark Seal, associate executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Seal said his office has been inundated with calls about naturalization, with many of the Russian emigres anxious to become U.S. citizens to avoid begin affected by any welfare-reform legislation. “All the naturalization classes are filled through the end of the year,” Seal said of those offered by the New York-based HIAS.

But activists worry that Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union are often older individuals who, for various reasons, such as the language barrier and fear of government, are not likely to become citizens.

With Congress’ attention focused on health care reform and the upcoming elections in November, most political officials are predicting that welfare reform will not receive any serious attention on Capitol Hill over the coming months.

Some analysts here suggested that Clinton introduced the measure to give Democrats campaigning for re-election another issue to hang their hats on.

But U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), acting chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is pressing committee members to draft a welfare reform bill by next month.

Clinton’s measure is expected to arrive on Capitol Hill late this week.

Congress has put numerous other reform proposals on hold until after the Clinton plan arrives.

Two Republican bills in the House and a third sponsored by the Mainstream Forum, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats, although similar to the Clinton plan, are less far reaching.

Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-NC) and Rep. James Talent (R-MO) introduced legislation denying benefits to all newcomers, including refugees. But neither has garnered significant support in Congress.

The legislative process to reform the welfare system is certain to be a long one and no one is sure what legislation is likely to emerge.

But Jewish groups say they are committed to fighting to keep benefits for immigrants.

“The Jewish community is an immigrant community and has achieved all that it has because of the welcome we have received,” said Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress.

“Having now established some measure of success, to say ‘No more are welcome,’ is just not right,” Pelavin said.

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