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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Refugees Incredulous over Loss of Welfare Benefits

August 7, 1996
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Miriam Davidovich, 76, came to the United States in 1973 from Ukraine and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart condition.

She has no family here except for a son sick with lymphoma, and she survives by the grace of government benefits, including Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps and subsidized housing.

Davidovich never became a citizen “because I never thought about it,” she said last week from the Jewish Association Services for the Aged Shorefront Senior Center in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

She goes there nearly every day to eat “a good, kosher lunch” for 75 cents, courtesy of a subsidy from the New York City Department for the Aged.

But unless she becomes a citizen, some, if not all of her benefits and those of countless others like her, will end within a year of enactment of the welfare reform bill that the president has pledged to sign.

“This is the only talk of Brighton Beach,” Rolya Stepanskaya, 71, said of the legislation’s impact.

She came from Odessa 17 years ago, relies on the same package of benefits as Davidovich, does not speak any English and says she was never “ready” to apply for citizenship.

“People are worried, but they don’t believe in the worst,” she said in an interview through a translator. “They don’t believe the United States will throw them in the ocean just because they’re not citizens.”

The welfare overhaul has left the Jewish social service and religious establishments reeling.

The new latitude it gives to the states and the scarcity of data on Jewish poverty and welfare dependence nationwide make it difficuit for them to measure the exact impact of the new legislation.

But they are protesting that it is harsh and unjust and that it will impose on them a crushing financial responsibility if they try to make up the losses.

Diana Aviv, director of the Council of Jewish Federations in Washington, said, “The jury’s out on how bad the burden will be. A lot depends on what the states decide to do.”

But the cutoff to elderly immigrants of SSI alone is certain to cost the Jewish community “many millions,” she said. SSI is federal cash assistance to the elderly and disabled.

The measure mandates that welfare recipients work after two years and imposes five-year lifetime limits, with some exceptions in cases of hardship.

These provisions will hit poor families and children hard, including Jewish families now dependent on state-run general assistance.

But the cuts in benefits for legal immigrants and for refugees who are classified as immigrants after five years in this country will have the biggest impact on the Jewish world.

Even President Clinton last week singled out this section of the legislation as harsh and punitive. “It has nothing to do with welfare reform,” he said. “It’s a budget-saving measure.”

Beba Bereshkovsky is a social worker at the Brighton Beach senior center who came from Riga, Latvia, 20 years ago and naturalized five years later, as soon as she qualified.

She was incredulous at the latest news, despite what she described as the saturation coverage it is getting in the Russian press.

“You let people in at an older age and you give them benefits,” she said. “You can’t take this away. They came legally. They have a green card and they have a right to get benefits.”

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society helped to bring in 350,000 Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union in the past 20 years, with the biggest concentrations resettling in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Denver, Atlanta and San Diego.

Refugees, categorized as such because they have demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality and social or political ties, will be affected by the new law five years after their arrival. That is when their special, protected status expires.

That status enables them to receive eight months of government refugee assistance after their arrival and then to apply for a range of other benefits.

Under the new law, if the refugees do not opt for citizenship or fail to obtain it after five years, they will be barred from SSI and food stamps and other programs from which states may choose to bar legal immigrants.

HIAS professionals estimated that thousands of Jews could lose eligibility for these benefits.

In another provision being anticipated as a huge blow, the new bill also will give states the authority to deny immigrants Medicaid. There are some exceptions, including immigrants who have worked for 10 years.

Joel Karp, senior vice president of Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, said the impact would be “devastating.”

If only two people of the 240 in the local Jewish nursing home lose these benefits because they have not naturalized, Karp said, “that creates a $100,000 problem” for the community.

No national data have been compiled on the population that came in as refugees, but communities report that the elderly make up between 15 percent and 30 percent and that only a small minority of them have opted for citizenship. Many of them are put off because of the language barrier.

While little information is available on the number of refugees who depend on government aid, a 1994 survey of 12 communities, conducted for the UJA- Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, indicate a high level of reliance by newcomers on public assistance.

New restrictions on future legal immigrants who are not refugees, meanwhile, are expected to increasingly affect the Jewish community.

An increasing number of Jews are expected to enter the country from the former Soviet Union as immigrants rather than refugees as their family members here have naturalized and are able to sponsor them.

Under the new law, legal immigrants coming into the country after the measure’s enactment will be barred from most benefits for the first five years. Afterward, they will be subject to newly stringent eligibility requirements.

For their part, even if refugees apply for citizenship at the earliest opportunity, bureaucratic backlogs mean invariable gaps of between several months to a year and a half, say the professionals at HIAS, which is responsible for bringing 21,500 Jewish refugees this year from the former Soviet Union.

The backlog finds HIAS in the midst of an intensive campaign to prepare immigrants for citizenship — and the campaign is striking a chord. The organization received more than 1,000 calls in the first three hours when a new audiotape on naturalization recently was made available, said Marina Belotserkovsky, assistant director of Russian communications at HIAS.

But some people are too frail or disabled to go through the citizenship process or too old to learn the English and civics that are required.

Belotserkovsky’s own grandmother came here four years ago and at 85, is slated to lose her benefits in another year because, without English, she is not equipped to take the citizenship test.

Some exceptions to the citizenship requirement are expected in hardship cases, while current laws permit exams in Russian for immigrants older than 60 who have been here for more than 15 years or those older than 55 here for more than 20 years.

“This is better than nothing,” said Belotserkovsky. “But it doesn’t apply to the majority of those who came during the last few years when the level of immigration was high, especially for our elderly.”

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