One new welfare reform idea floating around Washington is ridiculous. It would deny government benefits to many poor, elderly, non-citizen but legal immigrants in order to finance welfare reform for poor Americans. California can't be saddled with additional costs over which it has no control. That would be grossly unfair.
Immigrants are an easy target in Congress. They can't vote: Though they can legally live and work in this country, resident aliens (the technical term under U.S. immigration law) can't vote until they become citizens. And in most states their numbers are small. That's not the case in California, where as many as 40% of the resident aliens live. They would lose federal Supplemental Security Income checks, food stamps and other benefits, and, if they do, California will pay in major ways.
A modest change being proposed by the Clinton Administration would require them to live here five years, instead of three, before they qualified individually for SSI benefits. That cut would save from $2.7 billion to $6.8 billion per year. Some elderly or disabled immigrants could turn to their families; others would turn to the state. However, a bipartisan welfare reform bill introduced this week by two Midwestern senators, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), would cut deeper. It would count the income of the family member who sponsored the newcomer's admission to the United States to determine eligibility for SSI, Medicaid, food stamps and welfare.
A House Republican welfare-reform bill would do even greater damage. It would deny access to all means-tested social welfare programs for most non-citizen immigrants. This is extreme.
As Congress debates how to pay for welfare reform, the leadership of the California delegation and other fair-minded members must hold the line on what the federal government is obligated to provide for legal, permanent residents. They must take care that California is not savagely punished.