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Taking Funds From Latinos to Assist Soviet Immigrants--an Affront to Fairness

<i> Margo De Ley is a university administrator in Chicago and a member of the executive board of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a mutual-aid organization with offices in California, New York, Illinois and the District of Columbia</i>

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced an emergency funding bill to assist the resettlement of an unanticipated surge of refugees from the Soviet Union. The purpose of his bill, now before the Senate, is laudable. Unfortunately, he has seized on the wrong source of funding: He proposes to take $200 million from funds allocated by Congress to provide educational and other assistance to the 3 million immigrants who are trying to legalize their status through the amnesty program.

When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it also created the State Legalization Impact Assistance Grant. This mechanism was to channel federal funds--$1 billon a year for four years--to the states to pay for classes in English and U.S. history and government, which are mandatory for most of the immigrants, as well as for health and other services to which they are now entitled.

The reallocation of funds proposed by Kennedy poses a very troubling dilemma for me. I am the granddaughter of Mexican “refugees” seeking to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution, and of Jewish “dissidents” fleeing oppression in the Russian-dominated part of Poland in the early part of the century. All eventually found refuge in America. Each family came here to find a safe place to live and new opportunities for themselves and their children. Each family has thrived; the third generation includes doctors of philosophy, medicine and law.

How should I respond to the proposal to take funds promised to one group to give to the other? Adding to my dilemma is the glaring contrast in advantage of one group over the other in terms of the welcome given to it by the U.S. government. Seventy-five years ago, my Mexican and my European grandparents entered the United States with equal opportunity. Under the Kennedy proposal, one of my two families would be welcomed with open arms and generous assistance; the other would be relegated to the back door.

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The rationale behind the reallocation proposal is this: The expenditure of funds marked for newly legalized immigrants has been slow, creating (on paper) a surplus. The Bush Administration wants $600 million of the appropriation rescinded, to reduce the deficit or for other general purposes. Kennedy thinks that $200 million of the appropriation can be spared to cope with the urgent problem of Soviet refugees.

Those seeking to maintain full funding have pointed out that the slowness in spending the money has been due to bureaucratic sluggishness, if not incompetence, at the federal and state levels. In some areas of the country, the program is a year behind schedule. In California, demand for services, especially English and civics classes, has exceeded expectations by 50%; more than 150,000 immigrants are on waiting lists. It is more than likely that other states will experience a similar demand once their programs get under way.

The slow start-up recalls a similar slow start in sign-ups for temporary-resident status and the confusion during that phase of the amnesty due to poor organization on the government’s part.

The grant money is disbursed by reimbursement to service providers--that is, only after providers have spent the money and submitted claims, and after the state has processed their requests and received the funds from Washington to reimburse them.

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In contrast, Kennedy’s bill calls for immediate disbursement of funds to government and private agencies involved in the processing and resettlement of 25,000 Soviet refugees (his estimate). In introducing his bill on March 1, Kennedy lamented that “If additional funding (for Soviet refugees) is not found by next month, refugees will be turned back, left to languish in Rome. . . . " Not mentioned in his statement is that if funds are not available for participants in the amnesty program, countless numbers--certainly more than 25,000--will be turned away from English and civics classes. Unable to fulfill this requirement of amnesty, they will be “turned back” to Mexico and other Latin American countries as illegal aliens.

The consequences of cuts in the legalization-impact fund will be felt most strongly in California, with more than half of the 3 million people eligible for legalization. The state would lose close to $350 million under the Administration’s proposal, and another $115 million under Kennedy’s.

I have been struck by further contrasts: The Soviet refugees will enter with education, and many are likely to have some English-language skills developed in high schools and universities in the Soviet Union. They will be coming from a country of full employment, in many cases with experience in technical or professional fields. Their counterparts in the amnesty program come, for the most part, from Latin America, where unemployment runs at 50% and educational and vocational opportunities are limited, and where few people have access to English-language instruction.

The home countries of today’s Spanish-speaking immigrant families are staggering under the weight of debt, inflation, devaluation, unemployment, disadvantageous trade policies, political uncertainty at best, and war, violence, torture and death at worst. Once arrived in the United States, they need, perhaps more than anything, the opportunity to learn English and to understand how our form of government works so that they also understand their rights as residents in this country.

Congress understood this in voting appropriations for the legalization-impact assistance grants. A poor follow-through on the part of other government agencies should not penalize the millions who were encouraged to apply for amnesty.

Sadly, the Kennedy proposal has the potential to pit one ethnic group against another. Taking from a disadvantaged group to give to an advantaged one is not the best way to promote harmony and solidarity among our country’s diverse communities. Given the strong support in Congress for Soviet refugees, funding can be found in other sources, and advocates of Latino advancement can speak more strongly in defending legalization funds from Administration assaults.

For me, “let my people go” means two peoples. It means those seeking political, religious and cultural freedom and those in exodus from economic devastation and the threat of death. It means standing firm in our commitment to the 3 million new pilgrims we have welcomed through the immigration amnesty and to full funding for the assistance that they will need to enter the mainstream of our society.


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