Proper Cause for the Governors

The nation’s governors--including Pete Wilson--are pressing Washington to restore benefits to elderly, blind and disabled legal immigrants that would be lost under the new federal welfare reform law. Their pragmatic pitch is finding a friend in President Clinton, a former governor who nevertheless helped to create this hardship when he signed the historic bill into law. Only Congress can fix the problem.

New York Gov. George Pataki, a leader in this debate, has been joined by many influential fellow Republicans, including Gov. George Bush of Texas and, lately, Wilson, who had been out of the country on a trade mission for three weeks. In a compromise fashioned at the National Governors’ Assn. meeting currently underway in Washington, the governors agreed to make their appeal on behalf of old and infirm immigrants who are unlikely to become citizens, a fraction of the larger group of legal immigrants adversely affected by the new welfare law.

The governors can win this battle and gain relief for states with huge foreign-born populations only if they can persuade Congress to reopen the national debate on welfare reform, which is unlikely, or to appropriate additional funds to allow states to provide benefits for legal noncitizens.

About 1 million elderly and disabled legal immigrants can expect to lose benefits by summer even if they have paid taxes for years and obeyed every law. The cutoff notices started going out Monday, informing recipients that their Supplemental Security Income checks, which at most are $640 per month and are typically used to pay rent, and their food stamps will end unless they become U.S. citizens before August. L.A. County is maneuvering to keep food stamps for legal immigrants until September, which may help some would-be citizens.


Citizenship is an impossible route for many elderly and disabled immigrants, some of whom cannot pass the citizenship test because of infirmities, memory impairment, illiteracy or language difficulties. Many of those who try to become citizens could miss the deadline because of a new backlog created by extra scrutiny to weed out immigrants with criminal pasts; the wait has increased to nine months in California.

Wilson’s position is a no-brainer. California is home to 40% of the nation’s legal noncitizens. State officials conservatively estimate that 87,000 blind, disabled and elderly legal immigrants would lose SSI benefits here, while federal authorities put the number at 200,000.

Wilson and the other governors should prevail in Washington because aging and disabled immigrants who would lose benefits probably wouldn’t go to work. Most would turn to the state or county for help that these governments can’t afford. Immigration is a federal issue, and the federal government, not states and counties, should absorb immigration-related costs.