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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Groups Fight Uphill Battle to Retain Welfare for Immigrants

March 13, 1995
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Hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to America from the former Soviet Union, and thousands more seeking to immigrate, will lose their financial safety net if Congress continues its assault on the nation’s newcomers, Jewish activists say.

`With Congress’ budget ax set to slash welfare for legal immigrants, many Jewish activists are fighting what they know is an uphill battle to retain the programs that allow many Jewish families to bring their relatives to live in the United States.

In addition to cutting the safety net that assures future security, the legislation weaving its way through Capitol Hill signals a more immediate threat for the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants who now collect welfare benefits.

Despite intensive lobbying over the past few months, Jewish activists have already lost round one.

Last week, three House committees, including the House Ways and Means Committee, approved separate versions of the Personal Responsibility Act, the most sweeping welfare reform proposal to be seriously debated in decades.

On Monday, the House leadership combined the three versions into one bill, which the House is then scheduled to begin debating March 21, with a vote scheduled for March 24.

`Reforming welfare is one of the central tenets of the Republicans’ Contract With America. The entire House plans to vote on the measure before April 14, the 100th day of the new Congress.

For many Jewish activists, the welfare debate reaches beyond the immediate concerns over the impact such proposals would have on Jewish immigrants and the Jewish poor. It also reaches to the core of traditional Jewish views of society.

These battles are decidedly Jewish issues, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

“Jewish tradition cares about protecting God’s children,” Saperstein said in recent testimony to a House Ways and Means subcommittee. “The reforms would be devastating to Amercians and to so many Jews.”

In a 24-page pamphlet on welfare reform, leaders of the American Jewish Congress agreed.

“Judaism includes a strong commitment to the attainment of economic justice and insists that every person, as an individual and as a member of society, has an affirmative obligation to both prevent poverty and to help the poor,” wrote Flora Perskie and Martin Hochbaum, co-chairs of the AJCongress Commission on National Affairs.

Amid the overall concern for the poor, however, Jewish activists have been mostly focused on the legislation’s impact on immigrants. Many in the Jewish organizational world are concerned that local communities will be forced to fill the void when Jewish immigrants who now receive welfare are forced off the rolls.

“The implications are mind-bogging,” said Joel Carp, senior vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

“In no possible way can any federation in any city replace the long-term public assistance programs.”

Jewish communities across the country would face an unparalleled crisis, activists say, if states kick unemployed, elderly and disabled refugees off the welfare rolls if they do not become citizens within five years.

The overwhelming majority of Jews who come to the United States each year from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe enter the country as refugees. Thousands more come from Iran. An estimated 30,000 Jews are expected to come to the United States from the former Soviet Union this year alone.

Although refugees are considered immigrants under American law, they are afforded special benefits because they are presumed to be a fleeing a “well- founded fear of persecution.”

The House of Representative’s bill would limit refugees to five years of benefits and immediately slash all other immigrants from the welfare rolls. Only refugees older than 75 and those who become citizens would remain eligible to collect welfare.

“Punishing those who followed the rules and came here legally is not the answer to problems we face in our communities and in our country,” Diana Aviv, director of the Washington office of the Council of Jewish Federations, recently told a House Ways and Means subcommittee.

Aviv has been leading the organized Jewish community’s coordinated opposition to the reform proposal.

The current plan to deny cash assistance to legal immigrants goes against “the overarching principles of a credible and fair anti-poverty strategy,” Saperstein said.

“True reform of the welfare system should not put one needy population against another,” Saperstein said.

But some Republican Jewish activists support the initiative.

“My grandparents came to this country with pennies in their pockets, not speaking the language and never turned to the Government for help,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group.

Carp of Chicago vehemently disagreed.

“That experience was so wonderful,” he said sardonically, referring to the early immigrants to this country,”that Congress created this program” to provide special assistance for refugees.

While honest debate continues over the merits of extending benefits to legal immigrants, activists say there is little question that ending the aid would devastate immigrants and refugees alike who have become accustomed to the federal cash-assistance programs.

Activists estimate that tens of thousands of Jewish refugees now collect welfare after their first year in the country.

According to the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency,1.4 million legal immigrants, including refugees, were collecting welfare assistance either through Supplemental Security Income or Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1993.

The study also shows that immigrants are nearly twice as likely to collect welfare as citizens. The GAO found that 6 percent of legal immigrants in the United States receive cash welfare, compared with 3.4 percent of citizens. Nonetheless, the total number of immigrants on welfare remains significantly lower than the number of citizens.

Jewish activists say privately that the study has hurt their quest to preserve benefits for immigrants. They add that the study is misleading because refugees are counted as legal immigrants. Government policy, they explain, assumes that refugees will receive special assistance, which, according to the study, is classified as welfare when they arrive in the country.

Reform proponents argue that five years is sufficient for refugees to become citizens, at which point they would then have equal access to welfare, in whatever form it may exist.

“Five years is a long time to be able to integrate into society,” said Brooks, the Republican Jewish activist. “It’s a luxury that our ancestors didn’t have.”

Activists counter that five year is not enough time to become a citizen.

Immigration and Naturalization Service Offices across the country have monthlong backlogs for citizenship applications.

Over the last several months, since the welfare reform debate began, Jewish refugees have been seeking to speed up the process of becoming U.S. citizens, according to Jewish communal officials.

The refugees have been flooding local INS offices as well as citizenship assistance programs provided by local Jewish communities.

Activists point out that older and disabled refugees have more difficulty meeting the eligibility requirements because of language barriers and immobility.

Despite the rush to cut money from the welfare program, special benefits given to refugees when they arrive in America remain unscathed so far in Congress.

For the first eight months, a combination of federal and Jewish communal assistance programs provide refugees with housing, food, clothing and basic furniture.

For the employable refugees, additional assistance is provided for English- language and job-training classes. These refugees, though eligible for food stamps and health care, cannot qualify for welfare during this period.

In contrast to the employable refugees, the disabled and elderly generally go directly on to welfare where they can receive supplemental security income checks, which provide a maximum monthly cash benefit of $458.

Although refugees older than 75 would not be affected by the proposed legislation, those older or disabled refugees under 75 could be most adversely affected by the plan because of the physical limitations of their ability to become citizens.

With debate on Capitol Hill slated to continue through the end of March, some activists have thrown in the towel on the House and have began to focus their energies on the Senate.

`Others hold at least a glimmer of hope for Congress’ lower chamber.

The Council of Jewish Federations is asking members of Congress to flood the House with amendments to the welfare reform bill when it comes up for a vote. The planned amendments would reinstate benefits to immigrants and refugees as well as make voting for a bill that cuts off the lifeline for children as politically painful as possible.

In Washington, Jewish activists are not giving up, but neither are they optimistic.

“On the House side, our hopes are very, very modest,” Aviv said, “But on the Senate side, we’re moving ahead.”

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