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News Analysis: Historic Budget Agreement Falls Short for Immigrants

May 6, 1997
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The highly touted balanced budget agreement between President Clinton and congressional Republicans would provide only a partial reprieve for some legal immigrants if the blueprint becomes law.

Despite claims of victory by the White House, the historic agreement falls far short of President Clinton’s promise to restore the cuts in aid to legal immigrants that were enacted in last year’s welfare reform legislation.

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 this August.

“President Clinton did not go as far as he could have,” said Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations. “He could have held out for better.”

Some federations across the country have begun to craft contingency plans and others have launched special fund-raising campaigns to provide assistance to those elderly refugees who will be axed from the welfare rolls.

But the federated system cannot step in to make up for what the federal government will cut off, activists say.

Under the deal announced last Friday by Clinton and Republican leaders:

Only disabled immigrants who were in the United States before the welfare measure became law last August will be eligible to continue receiving federal support from Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid.

Low-income immigrants who are not disabled will be barred from Medicaid and SSI, as called for under welfare reform legislation. SSI provides each recipient with about $460 monthly in cash assistance.

No children of legal immigrants will be eligible for Medicaid coverage.

No food stamps will be provided to immigrants. Some states may step in to provide their own food stamp and Medicaid programs.

But all the news from the deal was not bad, according to those in the Jewish community who are closely following this issue.

In a major breakthrough for refugees, the agreement — which still requires a lengthy legislative process — would extend by two years the access to benefits that refugees currently enjoy.

Jews from the former Soviet Union and other refugees are afforded special protections because they are fleeing from what the government calls a well- founded fear of persecution.

The federal government treats refugees the same as citizens for their first five years when it comes to federal welfare programs. Last week’s agreement would extend that access for two more years, bringing to seven the number of years a refugee can access the benefits.

The challenge for Jewish social service agencies arises after this period, if the refugee does not become a citizen. The refugee is then classified with all other legal immigrants and barred from welfare.

Many of the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who come each year, primarily from the former Soviet Union, are elderly and disabled and cannot pass the citizenship test.

By banning most federal assistance to immigrants, welfare reform saved $24 billion over five years. The agreement hammered out between Clinton and congressional leaders would restore $10 billion to this saving.

Because the additional spending only applies to immigrants in the country before Clinton signed the law last August, eventually the pool of those eligible will disappear.

In his weekly radio address over the weekend, Clinton included a passing reference to how the agreement treats immigrants.

The budget agreement “keeps my pledge to continue the job of welfare reform,” he said, by “restoring some of the unwise and excessive cuts included in last year’s welfare bill.”

But the fact that only some of the cuts would be remedied under the agreement has sparked the ire of many in the organized Jewish community.

“I do not think that the president has fulfilled his promises, which is not what we had in mind when we signed on to welfare reform,” said Pamela Seubert, director of government programs at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

While most Jewish groups had opposed the welfare reform legislation, they had retreated from their fierce opposition, believing that Clinton would uphold his promise to restore the cuts affecting legal immigrants.

In addition, any changes to welfare under the budget agreement would not go into effect until Oct. 1, a full two months after immigrants are scheduled to begin losing assistance.

Congress is scheduled to vote on the budget agreement in the coming weeks.

But that’s not the end of the line. If approved, as expected, the House still has to craft 13 annual appropriations bills, which would include the welfare changes.

Jewish activists have pledged to lobby Congress to include all of the changes agreed to by Clinton and GOP leaders.

For his part, Yossi Abramowitz, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, has promised to work for more changes, calling the agreement “a window of opportunity.”

“You can’t say to an old disabled person, here’s your SSI check, do you want to use it for rent or food?” Abramowitz said, referring to the cut-off in food stamps, which began to be felt last month.

The Union of Councils recently staged a Capitol Hill rally to draw attention to the plight of immigrants.

“If they do not restore food stamps for disabled immigrants, we will bus people in to sit in front of the congressional cafeterias,” Abramowitz said.

But convincing Congress to spend more money on immigrants is an uphill battle. Congressional committee chairmen are given a fixed amount of money in the budget resolution, which details the path to a balanced budget by the year 2002.

Therefore, any additional spending on food stamps or SSI would have to be offset by a cut in other spending.

Meanwhile, Jewish activists also will be watching other aspects of the budget agreement as they fall into place.

Whereas welfare fixes emerged as one of the few areas where negotiators struck a specific agreement, on other issues, such as low-income elderly housing, “a lot of the details still have to be worked out,” said Mark Meridy, senior housing specialist at B’nai B’rith.

B’nai B’rith runs more than 20 low-income housing facilities around the country.

But preliminary evidence indicates that the budget deal contains enough money to renew low-income elderly housing projects as their contracts expire, Meridy said.

“What we do not know is at what rate,” he said.

On foreign aid, negotiators did not hammer out an agreement on specific sums of money, but advocates remain optimistic that Congress will approve a modest increase in foreign spending this year.

Levels of aid to Israel, however, are expected to remain constant at $3 billion annually.

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