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Welfare Aid to Older Immigrants Imperiled : Entitlements: Administration task force’s proposal to deny SSI benefits to those in the country legally until they become citizens has sparked angry protests.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Looking for money to pay for welfare reform, an Administration task force has touched off a struggle with immigration advocates by eyeing funds from a rapidly growing entitlement program that benefits elderly immigrants.

The task force is considering a proposal to deny Supplemental Security Income benefits to elderly immigrants until they become citizens--and immigrant groups are intensely resisting.

“This will be felt and perceived as a xenophobic attack,” charged Cecilia Munoz, senior immigration policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.

In the Little Saigon section of Westminster--the cultural capital for the largest Vietnamese settlement outside Vietnam--the economic threat has galvanized immigrants, whose angry protests have been crackling over the airwaves of Little Saigon radio for the past two weeks. More than 9,000 people streamed through the shopping mall office of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California to sign petitions challenging the proposal.

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But Administration officials involved in the welfare reform effort and other analysts said that the dramatic increase in the number of elderly immigrants retiring with SSI benefits over the last decade raises legitimate questions about whether the ultimate responsibility for their support should rest with the government--or with the children who sponsored their admission into the United States.

The struggle among groups traditionally allied with the Democrats illuminates the difficult choices facing the Administration’s welfare reform task force as it seeks the money to pay for its plan through cuts in other programs. The Administration estimates that welfare reform could cost as much as $6 billion annually by 1999.

Even more important, the battle over the SSI money opens a new front in the polarizing debate over government benefits for immigrants. Until now, Congress has fought over whether to deny illegal immigrants access to government programs. But the proposal under discussion in the Administration, and a far more sweeping plan put forward by House Republicans, would scale back aid to legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens.

Some immigration experts said that they fear tying benefits to citizenship would impose an unprecedented form of second-class status on legal immigrants who have not become naturalized.

“I think it is an inappropriate linkage,” Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris M. Meissner said in an interview. “Our position as a country has been that with people who are here as lawful permanent residents you should, to the greatest extent possible, not make discriminatory distinctions between them and citizens.”

Founded in 1974, the SSI program provides food stamps and monthly benefits of up to $446 for indigent individuals and $669 for couples who are blind or disabled, as well as elderly Americans who are not eligible for Social Security or who qualify only for very small benefits.

Illegal immigrants are ineligible for SSI aid. But the program has become a major source of support for elderly legal immigrants who do not qualify for Social Security because they have never worked in the United States.

As overall immigration has increased over the last two decades, the number of legal non-citizen immigrants receiving SSI has surged from about 128,000 in 1982 to 601,000 today. New applications for SSI from legal aliens are running at the rate of more than 150,000 annually.

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Although many legal immigrants receiving SSI are blind or disabled, government figures show that more than two-thirds are elderly.

Thus, the rising number of immigrants receiving SSI benefits largely reflects the increase in elderly newcomers coming to the United States under an immigration law provision that entitles American citizens to bring their parents here. The number of immigrants entering the country to reunify with their children has increased from under 40,000 in 1985 to almost 65,000 today.

Under current law, immigrants arriving in the United States through family reunification provisions generally are ineligible for social welfare benefits for three years. During that period, the government takes into account the income and assets of the relatives who sponsored their admission. Except in cases of extreme poverty, the combined income usually exceeds the eligibility cut-off for aid.

Last fall, Congress temporarily extended that so-called “deeming” period from three to five years for the SSI program.

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The proposal under consideration by the Administration task force would extend the deeming period for SSI (and possibly other welfare programs, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps) even further: until the new immigrants become citizens, a process that generally takes at least six or seven years.

The contemplated change would affect only new arrivals, not those now receiving benefits. Refugees would be exempt from the restrictions and Medicaid eligibility would remain unchanged.

By denying lawful immigrants access to SSI, AFDC and food stamps until they become citizens, the government would save $6 billion over five years, with the bulk of the savings a result of the changes in SSI, the Administration task force has calculated. Figures for restricting SSI alone were not available.

Immigrant advocates maintained, however, that extending the ineligibility period for SSI would present immigrant families with an unfair choice.

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“By proposing to cut essential benefits to elderly, blind and disabled immigrants, the Administration will put many families in the untenable position of having to choose between family reunification and poverty,” almost two dozen immigrant rights groups wrote Clinton in late February. “Such a choice offends the basic values of this nation.”

Moreover, immigrant advocates argued that, because relatively few elderly immigrants learn enough English and take the other steps required for citizenship, the change amounts to denying them retirement benefits.

“We should have equal protection according to the Constitution,” said Ban Bui, the president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which has organized a letter-writing campaign challenging the plan. “How can they have something different for the citizen and non-citizen?”

The issue has mobilized Vietnamese groups, which just a few weeks ago mounted a weak opposition campaign when it appeared obvious that the President was moving to lift the trade sanctions against Vietnam.

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“You cut benefits from those who cannot vote. They have no voice,” said Nam Loc Nguyen, the director of the immigration and refugees department for Catholic Charities of Los Angeles, who has been traveling to various California cities to raise opposition. “We learned that lesson from the lifting of the trade embargo, so people are starting to realize how important it is to advocate for themselves.”

Critics of the existing program questioned why U.S. taxpayers should support the retirement of elderly immigrants who have spent most or all of their working lives in another country. It would be more appropriate, these critics said, for those burdens to be borne by the children who sponsored their immigration to the United States.

“The idea that immigrants can bring in their parents to retire here, to incur expensive medical treatment, is a very troubling trend,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group critical of high levels of immigration. “We can’t allow people to bring their parents here from around the world to live and die at taxpayer expense.”

Though immigrant rights groups promise a ferocious battle if the Administration proposes SSI cuts, even some legislative allies acknowledged that the groups face an inhospitable climate.

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One measure of the current sentiment is a proposal put forward by House Republicans as part of their welfare reform plan. Under the GOP plan, all legal non-citizen immigrants, including those already in the country, would be denied access to all means-tested social welfare programs, including SSI, food stamps, AFDC, Medicaid (except for emergencies), school lunches and job training. Only refugees and aged legal immigrants who already have been in the country five years would be exempt.

“We are offering them a choice: They have a choice of staying where they are or coming to the U.S. and not draining our services that they didn’t contribute to,” said Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

At this point, most observers said they consider it unlikely that Congress would approve such an extreme benefit reduction. But the existence of that proposal may make the Administration’s plan seem more moderate and acceptable, even critics conceded. If the Administration proposed reducing access to SSI alone, Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said, “my guess is that it . . . will pass.”

Times staff writer Doreen Carvajal contributed to this story.

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