Balanced Budget Deal Restores Some Benefits to Legal Immigrants

The balanced budget agreement reached this week by Congress and President Clinton would restore some welfare benefits to a limited group of legal immigrants.

But far from being a promised fix of last year’s welfare reform law, the agreement to balance the federal budget by 2002 only helps legal immigrants who were in the country before last August.

“This is a law that takes care of the here and now, but does not satisfy the needs of the future,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federation’s Washington Action Office.

Working on behalf of the organized Jewish community, Aviv’s office had lobbied hard on several elements contained in the landmark agreement, the first compromise deal to balance the budget in decades.

The deal, which was expected to pass both houses of Congress this week, consists of two components: a tax-cut bill and a broad spending measure, which would scale down major social programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

While Jewish activists lost some points, they won some others, including the inclusion of a provision that would ensure Medicaid recipients access to religiously affiliated nursing homes.

Despite some concerns, other Jewish groups lauded the agreement as, in the words of the American Jewish Congress, “a fair and reasonable compromise between what had been widely conflicting priorities of a Democratic administration and a Republican Congress.”

Conservative Jews also hailed the agreement.

“It is good for the American economy and good for the American people,” said Matthew Brooks of the the National Jewish Coalition, a Jewish republican lobby.

Agudath Israel of America praised the agreement’s $500 per child tax credit.

“Helping families defray the costs of raising children is surely sound policy, one that pays high dividends in the future,” said Agudah’s Washington representative, Abba Cohen.

The budget agreement, in effect, would create two classes of legal immigrants – - those who were in the country when welfare reform legislation was enacted last year and those who were not.

Those who were in the country when the law passed can continue to receive Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income if they are currently disabled or become incapacitated at a later date.

Elderly legal immigrants who are not disabled will be cut off as of Aug. 1 from SSI and Medicaid, as required by last year’s law.

The measure does not affect last year’s ban on food stamps to all legal immigrants.

For refugees, including tens of thousands of Jews from the former Soviet Union, the agreement would have an immediate impact.

The measure would extend from five to seven years the amount of time that a refugee can access Medicaid and SSI. After seven years, a refugee who does not become a citizen would lose access to the federal programs in the same way that all legal immigrants would.

Refugees are legal immigrants who are afforded special treatment for their first five years in the country because they are presumed to be fleeing well- founded fears of persecution.

The extension would allow many refugees the extra time necessary to become citizens, activists say.

Despite likely passage by Congress, debate over the plan’s implementation is likely to continue for a long time.

One of the uncertain points is what will happen to public housing assistance for disabled immigrants. Because the measure does not specify whether legal immigrants could receive housing assistance, they could ultimately lose that benefit.

“This would be a catastrophe,” said Aviv, who pledged to work with the administration in the future to secure the housing guarantees.

In the rush to secure a deal before Congress leaves for its summer recess this weekend, negotiators dropped many controversial changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

But in a move widely hailed by the organized Jewish community, the package includes a provision that would guarantee Medicaid recipients the choice of a religiously affiliated nursing home.

The growing shift to managed care, where patients must seek services from an approved list of providers, had threatened to cut off some Jewish applicants from Jewish nursing homes that weren’t in their designated network of health care providers.

This week’s agreement includes a provision that would allow a patient to choose a religiously affiliated home out of their network if none is available within it.

There are some 250 Jewish facilities around the country.

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