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Focus on Issues: Thousands Rally in Washington to Restore Immigrant Benefits

In a scene reminiscent of the Soviet Jewry rallies of the 1980s, thousands gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol this week in support of their Jewish brethren.

But this time, instead of imploring the Soviet Union to “Let my people go,” immigrants from the former Soviet Union and activists came to register a desperate plea Monday with the U.S. government: “Don’t abandon our elderly and sick.”

Their message was directed at lawmakers who voted to strip immigrants who are not citizens of benefits as part of last year’s welfare reform legislation.

The new law bars most legal immigrants from receiving food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income unless they become citizens — which requires passing tests in English — or can prove they have worked here at least 10 years.

Tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants began to feel the impact of those cuts April 1, when their food stamps were cut off. They are now bracing to lose about $500 in monthly SSI payment beginning Aug. 1.

Yosef Abramowitz, national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, described the legal immigrant provisions of the welfare law as a “devastating time bomb” and issued a stern warning to lawmakers who do not move to defuse it.

“The powerful American Jewish community, and other communities of faith and conscience, will play electoral hardball in November 1998 with those in Congress who are trying to throw our parents and our grandparents and our neighbors into the streets,” Abramowitz told the protesters.

His remarks, along with those of other speakers, were repeated in Russian.

Estimates of the crowd’s size ranged between 1,500 and 5,000, though organizers with the Union of Councils and the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union said they bused in 6,000 people for the rally.

The gathering launched a weeklong lobbying blitz aimed at convincing Congress to restore benefits to legal immigrants.

In addition to the Jewish protesters, hundreds of top federation officials from across the country met this week with members of Congress and top administration officials, including first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to press for the changes.

“We won’t rest until this issue is resolved,” said Diana Aviv, director of CJF’s Washington Action Office. “This is a top priority for all the federations.”

Some of the Jewish immigrants who gathered for the rally under a cloudless spring sky on the west steps of the Capitol had affixed yellow Stars of David to their coats. Others wore old Russian uniforms adorned with World War II medals.

The Jewish demonstrators included survivors of Nazi and Communist persecution, some of whom held signs reading “Help Holocaust and political camp survivors to survive” and “We pay taxes for our elderly and sick.”

“I’m terrified about what’s going to happen,” Liza Pasternak, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor living in New York, said via a translator.

She has been unable to pass the oral portion of citizenship exam because of hearing loss sustained from being beaten on the head by Nazi soldiers.

“When I got a letter form the Social Security Administration that I was going to lose my welfare benefits unless I become a citizen, I immediately fainted,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. My son is in Israel, my daughter is unemployed. If I lose my benefits I’m going to be out on the street.”

For Pasternak and thousands of others, the language barrier remains the primary obstacle to passing the citizenship test and regaining access to benefits.

Nadia Karalnik, a 21-year-old medical student from Milburn, N.J., who emigrated from Russia seven years ago, said she worries about what will happen to her grandfather, a diabetic who has suffered a stroke.

“How do you expect someone like that to learn English?” she asked, adding, “We’re the most humane society in the world, but it doesn’t show.”

During the welfare debate last year, Republican leaders argued that in order to save money and end abuses in the system, the costs of providing welfare benefits to immigrants had to be reduced.

Congressional Democrats have proposed a number of bills to fix the provisions, and President Clinton has said he wants to restore aid to needy immigrants.

Republicans, for their part, have proposed $2 billion in block grants to states with large numbers of legal immigrants.

Addressing the demonstrators, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), a leading proponent for restoring immigrant benefits, vowed to “keep the pressure on” in what he characterized as a campaign to “regain the soul of the United States Congress.”

“What we did in the last congress was shameful,” said Wellstone, whose father fled pogroms against Russian Jews as a teen-ager. “We are a proud nation of immigrants, and we will win.”

In an interview, Wellstone acknowledged that a tough battle was ahead. “People don’t want to undo what they did last year,” he said of his colleagues in both houses. “It’s hard for people to say `Look we made a mistake.’ “

But he read encouraging news into the Senate’s unanimous adoption of a non- binding resolution Monday declaring that “elderly and disabled legal immigrants who are unable to work should receive assistance essential to their well- being.”

Wellstone co-sponsored the measure along with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) released a Congressional Research Service study this week that found recent immigrants — both legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens — paid an estimated $55 billion in federal income taxes in 1995.

“Without immigration, the government would have had $55 billion less to pay for key services or deficit reduction,” Kennedy said in a written statement. During tax season “it is worth considering the contributions of legal immigrants to Uncle Sam.”

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