Behind the Headlines: Would-be Russian Emigrants Ponder Impact of Welfare Reform

Mikhail, a 62-year-old journalist in Moscow, has been planning to immigrate to America for several years.

He was ready to settle in Maryland, where his elderly mother, as well as a younger brother and sister, have lived since the early 1980s.

But now that President Clinton has signed welfare reform legislation that will affect new immigrants, Mikhail is reconsidering his move.

“I don’t know what to do now,” said Mikhail, who asked that his full name not be used.

“I received many calls from my relatives and friends in America who are clearly worried that if I come today, I might have a rough time there,” said Mikhail, whose immigration papers are all set.

The newly enacted and highly controversial welfare reform legislation has already sent alarm bells through Russian emigre communities in the United States.

The bill has also sparked concern in the organized American Jewish world, where officials worry that they will be faced with having to make up for the loss of benefits to Russian Jewish emigres.

Here, in Russia, the new legislation received little coverage in the media, but would-be emigrants are hearing about the possible consequences from relatives in the United States.

They are also turning to local sources to glean whatever information they can.

Despite the scare, the new welfare legislation is not likely to reduce the number of Jews emigrating from Russia to the United States, according to Mikhail Chlenov, president of the Va’ad, the Jewish Confederation of Russia.

The reasons behind Russian Jewish emigration are such that not many people would change their mind because of the bill, he said.

“Those who are coming to America these days wish to be reunited with their families or to improve their social and economic status,” said Chlenov.

In addition, he said, some Jews are influenced by an “old Russian Jewish myth about America as a golden land.”

Still, the situation of Mikhail, the journalist, illustrates the dilemma of many would-be emigrants who expect to qualify for some form of government assistance and now may wonder how they will cope.

Mikhail, who suffers from diabetes, said he is afraid of being denied access to Medicaid, which is for him the most important benefit he would receive after moving to the United States.

Most Russian Jews now immigrating to America come as refugees, categorized as such because they have demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or social or political ties.

Refugees will be affected by the new welfare law five years after their arrival in the United States. That is when their special, protected status expires.

That status enables them to receive eight months of government refugee assistance after their arrival and then to apply for a range of other benefits.

Under the new law, if refugees like Mikhail do not opt for citizenship or fail to obtain it after five years, they will be barred from Supplemental Security Income and food stamps as well as other programs from which states may choose to bar legal immigrants.

During the past 20 years, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has helped to bring 350,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union into the United States.

This year, HIAS is expected to facilitate the immigration of about 21,500 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, about 35 percent of them from Russia.

HIAS professionals have estimated that thousands of Jews already in the country could lose eligibility for these benefits under the new welfare legislation.

The new welfare law will have an even more immediate impact on future legal immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not classified as refugees.

Until now, few Russian Jews have left the country as legal immigrants rather than refugees, but this situation could change.

An increasing number of Russian Jews are expected to leave for America as immigrants because their immediate relatives already living in the United States are naturalized and are able to support them, according to Chlenov.

Under the new law, legal immigrants will be barred from most benefits for the first five years, at which time they are eligible for citizenship. Afterward, they will be subject to newly stringent eligibility requirements.

Those who are continuing with their plans to emigrate soon say they are counting on relatives in America for help rather than on government benefits.

“I will go in spite of the [welfare] reform,” said a 68-year-old Moscow man who asked not to be identified.

“My relatives have lived in California since 1978. They will definitely help me if I need it,” he said.

Another future immigrant to America, a 72-year-old retired Russian language teacher, said she got a letter from a younger sister in Texas who is taking English lessons in order to pass the citizenship test next year.

“She has to memorize some 120 typical questions so she is not taken off guard at the exam,” the woman said of her sister, who moved to America four years ago.

If her sister fails to acquire citizenship next year, she will be cut off from such benefits as SSI and food stamps, she said.

Ada Shmerling, editor of the emigration section in Inostranets, or the Foreigner, a weekly Moscow newspaper that covers issues of emigration and international tourism, said many people are calling her editorial office to find out about the details.

“Many people are worried that the new legislation will cut them off from any kind of benefits,” she said, adding that the general media “didn’t seem to be much interested in this topic.”

She said the American Embassy could not give emigrants any information because it performs only the technical function of processing documents.

Oksana Glazman, an expert with the Movement Without Frontiers, a Moscow-based human-rights group that counsels people seeking to immigrate to the United States, said very few people had turned to her group for information about the new welfare law.

“Most of our clients know the necessary details from their family members living in the States,” she said.

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