The Great Social Laboratory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a generation, Los Angeles County has become one of the most diverse population centers anywhere. Mass immigration has drastically altered its demographic makeup, creating bustling new enclaves of settlers from Central America and Southeast Asia, Mexico, South Korea and the former Soviet Union, among many other places.

Some celebrate this polyglot diversity. Others deplore it.

But even if the immigrant flow were abruptly shut off--an unlikely prospect any time soon--that would not alter the multicultural face of the new L.A. Today, the county is home to about 3.2 million foreign-born people--a larger immigrant population than is found in any entire state except California itself. More than one in three of the county's estimated 9.4 million residents were born abroad; the national average is closer to one in 11.

For better or worse, the fate of the sprawling megalopolis is entwined with that of its immigrant population, whose numbers include many of today's wage-earners and entrepreneurs, and the parents of the next generation of Southern Californians.

But the national disquiet with high immigration has spawned a series of sweeping new federal laws that some see as punitive toward immigrants, even those here legally. Best known is the new welfare statute, but Congress' recent overhaul of immigration law also has wide-ranging implications here.

With its large population of immigrants and poor people, Los Angeles County stands to lose more than anyplace else. Some fear further social fragmentation in an area where many already despair of ethnic hostilities and there are vast disparities in income distribution.

"L.A. County will face the severest test," said Fernando Torres-Gil, a UCLA professor of social welfare and former Clinton administration aide who views the unfolding social challenges here as a instructive look into the nation's future. "No place in the country is facing as rapid a change or is moving as quickly into the new millennium. . . .

"We are the great social laboratory."

Shellshocked county officials, while acknowledging difficult times ahead, are avoiding apocalyptic scenarios as they assess the damage and devise ways to mitigate the worst. As a first line of defense, the county has embarked on an unprecedented program encouraging legal immigrants to sign up for citizenship, thus shielding them from cuts in services.

In Washington, some lawmakers and activists are pressuring the White House to restore cuts for legal immigrants, though a Republican-controlled Congress would have to approve them. County officials are also pushing the Wilson administration to refrain from exercising new options that would further pare federal health and service benefits for legal immigrants.

"If appropriate action is not taken at the state and federal levels, the impact on Los Angeles County will be extremely grave and widespread," said Phil Ansell, a county welfare strategist.

In slashing benefits for legal immigrants, members of Congress pointedly avoided speaking against newcomers who "play by the rules" and instead focused on cost-cutting--the estimated $20 billion to $30 billion saved over six years on legal immigrants accounts for about 40% of the overall projected congressional welfare savings. During the same congressional session, bipartisan opposition doomed efforts to cut legal immigration levels.

In Los Angeles County alone, about 250,000 permanent legal immigrants--many of them aged or disabled--face loss of federal checks or food stamps next year, generating massive new pressure on an already frayed health care and social service infrastructure. Some could be thrown out on the streets, swelling the homeless population. Many are likely to end up on county general relief, straining that program.

Thousands of other, temporary legal immigrants, such as political asylum applicants and others with provisional statuses, are also looking at a loss of cash and health benefits, while being newly barred from sundry services.

And most newly arriving legal immigrants will be banned from the social safety net for at least five years; their sponsors, usually relatives, will be legally liable for the cost of their care.

Along with the human toll, the county will lose, at a minimum, more than half a billion dollars in purchasing power because of slashed cash benefits, according to county estimates. Local businesses--such as grocery stores and restaurants, from the mom-and-pop variety to national chains--will feel that crunch.

Illegal immigrants have long been barred from most big-ticket benefit programs, but the welfare overhaul marginalizes them even more, granting states authority to ban them--along with many thousands in temporary legal statuses--from services such as prenatal care and from enrollment in public colleges and universities.

Immigrant mothers and children could even be barred from receiving federal nutrition aid.

Unlike the controversial cuts in benefits for legal immigrants, there was wide policy consensus in Congress and the Clinton administration that illegal immigrants should not be eligible for most subsidized benefits, except in emergency situations.

But perhaps the worst blow for the county's huge undocumented population--and for many residents with temporary legal status--was contained in the new immigration law, which includes provisions that experts say virtually rule out the possibility that many will ever attain legal status.

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One section effectively voids lawsuits by hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, concentrated in Southern California, who say they were wrongly excluded from the government amnesty program of the 1980s.

Another provision bars anyone who has been living here unlawfully for a year or more--as the vast majority have been--from the United States for 10 years. Still another measure raises the bar for long-term residents, many with U.S.-born children, who are citing hardship in seeking relief from deportation.

The official hope is that those here illegally or with provisional legal statuses will leave.

"If we do get serious about enforcing our immigration laws, about making it more difficult for people to work in this country and get benefits in this country, many illegal aliens will get the message and go home," said Ira Mehlman, Los Angeles representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks limits on all immigration.

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But many have been here for years, have steady jobs and U.S.-born children, and have virtually nothing to go back to.

So many observers predict that most will lead more and more of an underground existence--one likely to be increasingly precarious as a bolstered Immigration and Naturalization Service accelerates sweeps, job-site raids and other aggressive tactics in immigrant communities here.

Said attorney Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law:

"These people will constitute an ever-more exploited underclass without hope of ever becoming legal."

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County Impact

The sweeping new federal welfare overhaul signed into law by President Clinton in August achieves much of its savings through cuts in benefits for legal immigrants. No place will feel the sting like Los Angeles County. Impending county impacts:

* An estimated 99,000 elderly and disabled legal immigrants will lose federal Supplemental Security Income benefits and accompanying State Supplemental Payment. Average individual monthly payout is now $626, principally used for rent and food

* About 150,000 legal immigrants will lose food stamps. A typical family of three now receives $244 monthly in vouchers. In addition, thousands of illegal immigrant mothers and children, and many others with temporary legal statuses, could lose food aid if Gov. Pete Wilson opts to impose new restrictions on federal nutrition assistance.

* The area's economy will experience a net loss in buying power of $532 million from termination of SSI/SSP payments and food stamps for legal immigrants, according to county estimates. Many of those denied aid are expected to sign up for county-financed general relief checks.

* Unless state law is changed, 22,000 mostly elderly legal immigrants will lose In-Home Supportive Services, which assists people who might otherwise need institutionalization. A new state law would also be required to avert the eviction from nursing homes of an unknown number of illegal immigrants and temporary legal residents, most of them elderly.

* About 124,000 adults and children could lose federal checks averaging about $600 monthly for a family of four if the state opts to bar legal immigrants from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the successor to Aid to Families With dependent Children.

* More than 300,000 legal immigrants could be left without health coverage if the state excludes them from non-emergency Medi-Cal. The county could lose tens of millions in Medi-Cal revenue just as this newly excluded population turns to county hospitals and clinics for subsidized care. Already, about 20,000 illegal immigrant women are slated to lose state-financed prenatal care, and many other temporary legal residents face exclusion from Medi-Cal except in emergencies.

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