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Behind the Headlines: Senate Seen As Key to Save Deal on Renewing Immigrant Benefits

Jewish activists are vowing a vigorous fight to restore federal benefits to immigrants after House Republicans retreated from a budget deal that would renew certain assistance eliminated by the welfare reform law.

At the same time, the pending expiration of legislation that eases entry for refugees from the former Soviet Union has raised concerns among Soviet Jewry advocates, who fear that Congress may not renew the Lautenberg Amendment.

The landmark welfare reform law enacted last year cut nearly all federal aid to legal immigrants who are not citizens. President Clinton recently won concessions in negotiations with congressional leaders to “fix” the law.

But a House panel last week altered the terms of a budget agreement struck between Congress and the White House.

Under that painstakingly negotiated deal, disabled legal immigrants who were in the United States before the welfare measure became law last August, as well as those who become disabled in the future, could continue receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

The new proposal, advanced by Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and adopted by a House Ways and Means subcommittee, would extend SSI to immigrants — including the elderly poor — who were on the rolls as of Aug. 22, 1996.

But immigrants who were not on the rolls by that date would not be eligible for assistance even if they become disabled in the future.

Republicans argue that the new proposal is an improvement over the budget deal because it guarantees aid to elderly, poor immigrants already receiving social security checks.

“No way am I going to back off on this,” said Shaw, chairman of the subcommittee. “I’m going to stick with this come hell or high water. What the administration is arguing is cruel.”

But the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats, backed by most Jewish groups, said the new Republican plan would cover far fewer immigrants than the budget agreement.

In a letter to Shaw, the White House accused Republicans of abandoning the most vulnerable immigrants, while also arguing that the new plan would protect 75,000 fewer immigrants over five years than the budget agreement.

Jewish immigrant advocates, for their part, expressed outrage at the legislative move.

“It’s a bait and switch and a scaling back of the agreement,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations.

“It looks to me like we practically have to go back to square one,” said Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Council for Soviet Jews.

“What we’re talking about here is half a million or more elderly immigrants of many nationalities who are going to be homeless” as a result of the new welfare law.

The Union of Councils staged a Capitol Hill rally earlier this year to draw attention to the plight of immigrants. Last week, the group delivered a petition to Congress containing 100,000 signatures urging lawmakers to restore immigrant benefits.

Immigrant advocates face a tough battle in trying to mitigate the impact of the welfare law, particularly since the “fix” the White House negotiated only amounted to a partial reprieve to begin with.

Even if Congress approves all aspects of the budget agreement, the Jewish social service system will face a multimillion dollar crisis when poor, elderly immigrants who have not become U.S. citizens — including tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union — begin to lose federal support in August.

Immigrant advocates are now turning their attention to the Senate, where they believe the budget accord, together with efforts to restore certain welfare benefits, will fare better.

The Senate has already adopted a non-binding resolution declaring that “elderly and disabled legal immigrants who are unable to work should receive assistance essential to their well-being” — a move that has given some immigrant advocates reason for cautious optimism.

Moreover, Aviv of CJF said she sees “real movement,” given that the fight does not appear to be over whether to restore benefits, but over how a chunk of money can best be spent to benefit legal immigrants.

“We will try to get as many fixes as possible under the circumstances,” she said.

Amid the haggling over the budget deal, Jewish activists have also found themselves scrambling to protect Jewish immigrants on another front.

The House, citing budgetary concerns, dropped a provision from its foreign operations authorization bill last week that allows Jews and members of other persecuted groups to enter the United States as refugees under eased criteria.

The provision, known as the Lautenberg Amendment, was enacted in 1990 under the sponsorship of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in response to growing concerns about the potential for an anti-Semitic backlash in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise.

Under the law, historically persecuted groups seeking refuge in the United States, including Jews and evangelical Christians, only have to show a “credible basis for concern” about the possibility of persecution instead of having to prove “well-founded fears,” as is the case with other refugees.

The legislation, which expires in October, has enjoyed strong support over the years. It passed both houses last year by wide margins.

But last week the House Rules Committee deleted the measure, citing a study by the Congressional Budget Office which claimed for the first time that the amendment would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the federal budget in coming years.

Jewish immigration advocates were quick to lambaste the move, dismissing the budgetary concerns as “bogus.”

The House action “takes direct aim at the Soviet Jewry movement,” said Naftalin of the Union of Councils. “This is war for us.”

Aviv of CJF took a softer stance, saying the House action was based on an “erroneous interpretation” of the law. She expressed confidence that the measure will prevail.

“This is a very good example of how the devil is in the details and how it is possible to wipe out programs through bureaucratic maneuvers,” she said. “We believe the Senate will be more sympathetic.”

The uncertainty surrounding renewal of the refugee provision comes as a congressionally-appointed commission called on the White House to take charge of immigration and refugee policies and criticized key measures of a new law.

In its annual report to Congress, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform called for “immediate correction” of measures in an immigration law Congress passed last year that it said could wrongly return refugees to face persecution or death.

The commission said provisions of the new law aimed at curbing abuse of the asylum system could harm people with bona fide claims and undermine efficiency of the system.

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