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NEWS ANALYSIS Restoring immigrant benefits shapes up as key budget battle

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (JTA) — From the Washington Beltway to Brighton Beach, Jews are watching closely as the annual budget battle begins. In addition to traditional concerns over foreign aid and elderly housing, this year”s focus is clearly on President Clinton”s budget provisions to reinstate many welfare benefits to legal immigrants. The plan would restore part of the safety net for thousands of Jewish refugees whose access to benefits was eliminated by last year”s welfare reform legislation. Clinton made the proposals, valued at $14.6 billion, in his 1998 budget proposal sent to Congress last week. Immigration advocates, including Jewish activists, immediately hailed the plan and called on Congress to implement the changes. At the same time, many Republican lawmakers condemned the proposal to restore access to federal welfare for legal immigrants. Clinton”s move on welfare fulfills the promise he made when he signed the welfare reform bill last summer. At that time, he called the section pertaining to legal immigrants harsh and punitive. But as Clinton faces an uphill battle to balance the budget and stiff opposition to changing welfare reform, Republicans, Democrats and activists on both sides of the issue are wondering how committed Clinton is to fixing welfare reform. “The question is how hard is the president going to push for his priorities,”” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation”s Washington Action Office. “I”m optimistic we will get something,”” she said, even as she cautioned that “it”s a long road.”” Congress this week began hearings on the budget. Aviv was scheduled to testify on the impact of the budget on immigrants. Over the next few months, lawmakers will mold Clinton”s $1.69 trillion budget into their own and tell congressional committees how much money they have to spend for the next fiscal year. During this process, likely to end in the summer, Congress will decide the scope of changes to welfare and spending priorities on a host of other federal programs. Clinton will then have another say on the issues when specific spending bills come to his desk for his signature or a veto. In addition to restoring spending on welfare, Clinton”s budget also calls on Congress to add about $1 billion more in foreign affairs spending, for a total of $19.5 billion. This figure includes: * $13.3 billion in foreign aid, including $3 billion in economic and military aid for Israel, $2.1 billion for Egypt, $70 million for Jordan, and $75 million for the Palestinian Authority;
* $900 million for the former states of the Soviet Union; * $80 million in refugee resettlement assistance for Israel; * $52.5 million for a Middle East Regional Development Bank, an international effort that the United States has authorized but not yet funded; * $12 million to promote Middle East peace talks; * $12 million to forgive Jordan”s debt; * $5 million to promote democracy in the Middle East; * $2 million for the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group, which is trying to keep the peace in the volatile border area. Whether because of the dollars involved or because of the expected hardship welfare reform is expected to create for Jewish communities that may have to step in to help Jewish immigrants who lose welfare benefits, the organized Jewish community is most focused on that aspect of the budget proposal. Some 350,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union have settled in the United States in the past 20 years, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Refugees, categorized as such because they have demonstrated a well- founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality and social or political ties, are affected by the new welfare law five years after their arrival. That is when their special, protected status expires and they qualify for U.S. citizenship. Under the new law, if immigrants do not opt for citizenship or fail to obtain it after five years, they will be barred from federal benefits, including SSI and food stamps. Although the exact impact is not known, it is estimated that tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants could lose eligibility. The law has spurred thousands of immigrants, including Jews, to become citizens since the law was enacted. But many immigrants, either for health reasons or inability to pass the citizenship exams in English, are facing an imminent loss of benefits. In Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood that is home to one of the largest populations of Jews from the former Soviet Union, residents have already begun receiving letters from the federal government warning that they will lose their benefits beginning in August. “Brighton Beach is in panic,”” said Beba Bereshkovsky, a program coordinator and social worker at the Jewish Association for the Aged Shorefront Senior Center in Brighton Beach. Social workers there say they are trying to find ways, including medical exemptions, for elderly immigrants who would otherwise find it difficult to pass the necessary requirements for citizenship. Among the specific budget proposals in Clinton”s plans that would affect refugees and other legal immigrants: * Extend refugee status from five to seven years (cost: $700 million) Refugees, who are unable to become citizens until they have been here for five years, often find themselves in a backlog of citizenship requests once they start the process. This extension would give refugees a greater window of opportunity to become citizens, without losing access to government assistance in the interim. * Restore access for immigrants disabled after arriving in the United States (cost: $13.7 billion) * Restore some access for immigrant children to Medicaid and SSI (cost: $200 million) * Extend food stamp eligibility for unmarried adults, including refugees and possibly other legal immigrants, from three months to six months ($3 billion) According to Aviv, these provisions “would be a good reversal for clients in our system.”” For Bereshkovsky, while the extra two years in the refugee provision “wouldn”t hurt for sure, we worry more about those who have been here many, many years”” and whose refugee status has already expired. Clinton”s budget also protects the federal assistance for refugees during their first eight months. The $396 million requested for this assistance reflects a slight decrease from this year, but that is because fewer refugees are expected to come this year, Aviv said. But Clinton”s spending plan is not as kind to elderly housing residents. Clinton requested less than half of last year”s spending for new construction on low-income elderly housing. B”nai B”rith, which runs 30 such developments, housing more than 5,000 individuals, criticized Clinton”s $307 million request. “We certainly recognize and understand the budget constraints this country faces, but we are facing an explosion of the senior population,”” said Mark Meridy, senior housing specialist at B”nai B”rith.