Behind the Headlines: Welfare Reform’s Restrictions Will Cost Jewish Communities

Jewish activists are looking to President Clinton as a last line of defense against welfare reform legislation that would bar thousands of refugees and other legal immigrants from receiving government benefits.

Jewish communal organizations, already financially strapped, are especially concerned about how they would be able to step in to provide health care, nutritional assistance and other necessary services now provided to Jewish refugees by the government.

The House last week approved a welfare bill that would, among other things, require welfare recipients in general to work after two years, while limiting their government benefits to a maximum of five years.

The House voted 256-170, largely along party lines.

The Senate passed a similar measure Tuesday in a vote of 74-24, more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.

The House-Senate conference committee, which must reconcile differences in the two bills, is expected to meet next week in order to get the measure to the White House by early August.

Clinton has sent mixed messages on the legislation, which would end the long- standing federal guarantee of assistance to the poor, and it remains unclear whether he would sign it.

Both bills would reduce federal welfare expenditures during the next six years by $59 billion.

About half the spending reductions would be achieved by limiting benefits to refugees after their first five years in the United States. The reductions would also come from the termination of benefits for legal immigrants other than refugees, no matter how long they have lived here, if they have not become U.S. citizens.

Jewish activists are chiefly concerned about the impact such legislation would have on the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who have come to America from the former Soviet Union, as well as the thousands more seeking to emigrate.

In 1995, nearly 22,000 Jewish refugees arrived from the former Soviet Union, while others came from Iran and Eastern Europe.

More than 30,000 Jewish refugees are expected to arrive in 1996.

Refugees are considered immigrants under current American law, but they are afforded special status because they are presumed to be fleeing a “well-founded fear of persecution.”

Because of that status, refugees are entitled to certain benefits such — as cash assistance for resettling in the United States — not available to other immigrants. Such refugee-specific benefits would not be affected by welfare reform.

But refugees, as well as other legal immigrants in need, have long been entitled to benefits available to U.S. citizens, including Medicaid, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income and food stamps.

The welfare reform bills would bar refugees from receiving those four key benefits after five years.

While many refugees would again be entitled to government benefits once they become citizens, they could be cut off while waiting for their citizenship applications to be processed.

The situation poses a serious problem, activists say, because refugees must wait five years before they are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, and the citizenship process frequently takes six months or longer.

Aware of this fact, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has undertaken a major effort in the past year to move as many refugees as possible to become citizens.

HIAS has assisted the Immigration and Naturalization Service in processing applications and in swearing-in ceremonies.

The welfare reform provisions pertaining to legal immigrants would be even more restrictive. Jews who came more than 10 years ago from the former Soviet Union arrived as legal immigrants, not as refugees.

Those immigrants still receiving government benefits would lose access to Medicaid, SSI and food stamps unless they can demonstrate that they or their spouses had worked and paid federal income taxes for 10 years or more.

That provision would exclude many elderly Jewish immigrants who have not become citizens and who have depended on government assistance of one form or another.

If the House bill becomes law, nearly 1 million legal immigrants awaiting citizenship would lose their Medicaid, about 1 million would lose food stamps and a half million would lose their SSI, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“This legislation is certainly not what our religious charities and synagogues and churches — with decades of experience doing extraordinary work assisting the poor — consider welfare reform,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“These institutions will be crippled by such far-reaching cuts,” he added. “Already overloaded and underfunded, they cannot be expected to fill the vacuum created by these massive cutbacks in government services.”

Alan Isbitz, director of administration for Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, Mass., said the Jewish refugees who make up about 25 percent of his clientele would be severely affected if they lose access to government benefits after five years.

In a worst-case scenario, where Jewish communal organizations are unable to provide funding to fill the void created by the government, Isbitz said, “we may have to choose between paying our mortgage and evicting our tenants.”

“I would hate to face that situation,” he added. “We could conceivably default on our mortgage to try to help this group from being evicted from our housing.”

The current effort to overhaul welfare marks the third time this Congress has taken action on such legislation.

Clinton has already vetoed two different welfare reform bills, one in December and one in January.

Under pressure to sign reform legislation after running for office in 1992 promising to “end welfare as we know it,” Clinton reiterated his desire this week to “sign legislation that does move people from welfare to work.”

But he has voiced several objections to the current reform legislation, one of which is that the bills go too far in denying most federal benefits to legal immigrants.

Moving to make the bill more acceptable to Clinton, the Senate on Tuesday eliminated a provision that would have given states control of the food stamps program. The Senate also voted to continue current Medicaid health benefits for poor women and children.

But lawmakers turned back an effort led by California’s Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to roll back a portion of the bill denying benefits to legal immigrants now in the United States.

The White House said it was pleased with the Senate’s accommodations on food stamps and Medicaid.

Jewish activists, meanwhile, see the new bills as more stringent than those already vetoed by the president. They are calling on Clinton to kill welfare reform outright. Short of that, they are urging him to stand firm in his objections to the legal immigrant and food stamp provisions — with hopes of securing, in the words of one, a “less Draconian” bill.

“We are looking to the president to make some very clear and unequivocal statement that he will sign a bill only if certain provisions are improved,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington Action Office.

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