Legal Immigrants Fear Federal Assault on Benefits : Assistance: Even if the president vetoes the plan as promised, rights to welfare are likely to be targeted.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seated in the backyard of his Los Angeles home, Tae S. Song speaks bitterly of the fraying of the American dream that he embraced upon arriving from Korea almost two decades ago. Having lost his once-secure aerospace job, Song is steeled for an even more debilitating blow: the cutoff of public assistance for his aged mother and disabled brother.

"This country is driving us to death," said a disconsolate Song, who added that his family faces destitution. "We will perish together, slowly."

The Songs are among hundreds of thousands of legal immigrant families targeted under the sweeping welfare reform package passed by the Congress this week. And although President Clinton has vowed that he will veto the package, experts say legal immigrants' rights to collect welfare are certain to be severely curtailed in any forthcoming compromise.

Inspired in part by California's Proposition 187, the congressional blueprint signals a fundamental shift of the nation's social policy at a time of mounting impatience with near-record levels of immigration. But Proposition 187--much of which has been invalidated by a federal court judge--targeted illegal immigrants, who are already barred from most big-ticket federal welfare programs. Congress is taking aim at a larger group: legal immigrants, who have been treated like U.S. citizens in most cases when it comes to welfare benefits.

Under the congressional plan, legal immigrants would be barred from--or have restricted access to--dozens of federal programs, including food stamps; Medicaid, the publicly funded health insurance for the poor; Supplemental Security Income, for the aged, disabled and blind, and Aid to Families With Dependent Children, which mostly benefits single-parent households).

In addition, U.S. residents who sponsor immigrants--usually relatives or friends--would be required to sign legally binding affidavits to extend their financial commitment until the immigrants become citizens. The citizenship process takes at least five years, but can drag on much longer.

"When you sign a commitment of financial support for an immigrant coming to America, you should be responsible for more than buying the gas to drive them to the welfare office," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley), who headed the Congressional Task Force on Immigration Reform.

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To Rep. Gallegly and other proponents, the impending new restrictions are long overdue, particularly because welfare payments to noncitizens are rising rapidly as immigration swells. Supporters cite a basic principle: Anyone accorded the privilege of U.S. residency should not be dependent on the public trough.

"I think it is certainly reasonable for the American people to say, 'We should not have an immigration policy that contributes to the growth of our welfare rolls,' " said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that favors greatly reduced immigration levels. "Remember that a lot of American citizens are being kicked off welfare as well."

To critics, however, the congressional efforts signal an ominous and largely unnoticed shift in social policy: banishing noncitizens to the ranks of the second-class. Some see a mean-spirited backlash against a vulnerable, nonvoting group.

"Legal immigrants are basically being exiled from the welfare state," said Michael Fix, principal research associate with the Urban Institute.

Even many immigrant advocates acknowledge the need to tighten some regulations, especially for Supplemental Security Income, and increase the financial responsibility of immigrants' sponsors. But critics say Congress is going too far, punishing the truly needy and penalizing people simply for being immigrants. On a parallel track, Congress is considering broad cuts in legal immigration numbers.

"This is disenfranchising an entire population in a way that has never really been discussed," Fix said.

Along with restricting benefits for legal immigrants, the wide-ranging congressional revisions would redefine and greatly expand who is considered an illegal immigrant for benefits purposes--and therefore barred from receiving virtually any nonemergency government aid. Many political asylum applicants and others who were previously secure in the knowledge that they were legal may soon find they are considered otherwise when seeking public assistance.

In threatening to veto the welfare bill, President Clinton has cited the immigrant measures among the administration's many objections. But most experts agree that stringent restrictions on noncitizens are inevitable.

Also virtually certain is that years of constitutional challenges will follow if the measures are enacted, just as Proposition 187 has been mired in court since its approval by California voters in November 1994.

A key element of the plan would superimpose layers of complex restrictions on providers and states, which would be required to be more stringent in verifying immigrant status and beef up reporting procedures.

That already has sent a shudder through many social service agencies, private and public.

"We're frightened to death about this," said Linda Mitchell of the International Institute of Los Angeles, a nonprofit Eastside organization that provides thousands of meals daily to youths and the elderly. If such a verification process becomes law, she and others predict, many needy people will simply not apply even though they may be eligible. "We're not a law enforcement agency," Mitchell said, "and we're not equipped to ask people about their immigration status."

The comprehensive congressional plan will surely have its most profound impact in California, where almost one in four residents is an immigrant--by far the nation's highest such proportion. California is home to more than half of the estimated 1.5 million legal immigrants currently receiving either Aid to Families With Dependent Children or Supplemental Security Income.

Losses in federal funds to provide cash, medical and other benefits now flowing into the state could reach $7 billion during the first five years after passage, along with billions more in lost purchasing power, according to the California Senate Office of Research. Critics see the rapid acceleration of a trend: Immigrant tax dollars accumulate in Washington while officials in the communities where newcomers live are left holding the social service bills.

Gov. Pete Wilson, at the forefront of the fight for federal reimbursement to cover the costs of illegal immigrants, is an outspoken advocate of the Republican welfare plan. A spokesman, Sean Walsh, rejected charges that the bill could cost the state millions.

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But officials in Los Angeles County--home to more than 3.2 million foreign-born people--think otherwise. They are bracing for yet another budget-busting round. The congressional cuts, officials say, will unjustly shift the care burden to a county already facing fiscal meltdown, and the Board of Supervisors has gone on record against the plan.

According to official estimates, the new law could strip benefits from about 207,000 of the county's legal immigrants on Aid to Families With Dependent Children, 276,000 on food stamps and 68,000 on Supplemental Security Income. An additional 26,000 elderly and disabled immigrants who receive in-home services, such as meals, could also lose benefits.

Many are likely to end up filing for county relief, overwhelming already scarce resources. At the same time, many legal immigrants, who account for more than one-third of the county's patient load, face a shut-off of subsidized coverage that provides an important revenue stream for the county.

"This is a nightmare for L.A. County and its residents," concluded Phil Ansell, the county's intergovernmental relations director for community and senior services.

Parkoohi Garibian, an ethnic Armenian from Iran, arrived with her 10-year-old son six years ago after a harrowing escape through Turkey and a year's wait in Europe for a U.S. refugee slot. She fled for her son's sake, she says, noting that Christians like them have little future in Muslim Iran.

Seated in the Glendale office of the Armenia Relief Society, Garibian's comes close to tears as she contemplates the prospective loss of $490 in monthly Aid to Families With Dependent Children benefits and $150 in food stamps that sustain her and her son, now 16. He wants to be a Navy pilot.

"We'd be homeless without this help," said Garibian, a single mother who buys her clothes in thrift shops and worries whether she is feeding her fast-growing boy enough on her meager resources.

In her despair, Garibian, who older than her 55 years, has even contemplated returning to Iran, however bleak the prospect. "I don't want my son to be hurt," she says, confiding that she does not share her worries with him. "I don't want his life to be ruined."

Although Aid to Families With Dependent Children and food stamps have been targeted by welfare critics, it is the explosive growth of Supplemental Security Income among legal immigrants that has animated the issue. The number of immigrants receiving the cash benefits nationwide ballooned almost fivefold between 1983 and 1993, to nearly 700,000, costing an estimated $3.3 billion. While constituting about 6% of the U.S. population, legal immigrants made up 11.5% of the supplemental income rolls, a congressional study found.

Supplemental Security Income, critics say, has become a retirement option of choice for elderly foreigners whose children--some of them well-off--have forfeited their legal and moral responsibilities.

"What has passed in the [Congress] is an effort to deal with a serious abuse, and that is people coming into the country who have never lived here, never worked here, never contributed to the Social Security system--suddenly they are entitled to SSI," Gov. Wilson told reporters in Washington recently.

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The governor is referring to such people as Patrick Liang, 72, and Chao-Jan Yen, 70, retirees and recent legal immigrants from Taiwan who live in a federally subsidized housing development in downtown Los Angeles. Both immigrated in the last six years to be with children here; each was initially supported by family members but now relies on Supplemental Security Income.

Each says he knew nothing about such benefits upon arriving in the United States. Both openly admire the U.S. social service network, far superior to what exists in their homeland, where care is typically left to families. But they are fearful of the congressional action, which could also threaten their subsidized apartments.

"It's not fair to just cut us off," said Liang, shaking his head. "I don't know what I'd do without those checks."

For Tae Song, the stakes are even higher. The Song family immigrated to the United States in 1976, with "dreams and high hopes for a better life in this country." He found steady work, purchased a modest home near Hancock Park and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

His mother suffered a stroke after arriving. She is now 78 and must take medicine daily and see doctors regularly. His brother developed mental illness and receives psychiatric care. Medicaid and Medicare cover their extensive medical bills. As the eldest son, Song says it is his duty to care for them. But last year, he was laid off his machinist's job.

At the moment, Song's mother and brother receive a combined $1,088 in supplemental security benefits monthly--which, along with Song's income from odd jobs, barely covers food and expenses, including his $1,370 monthly mortgage. Citizenship could provide an answer, but Song says neither speaks sufficient English to pass the test.

"I worked hard and paid taxes for 20 years," Song, still seemingly unable to believe what has happened to his life, told a visitor to his peaceful backyard. "I love this country. But now we are being thrown away."

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