Mayors and county executives from Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas used this reception center for 12 million immigrants as a backdrop Tuesday to protest Congress’ decision to withdraw federal welfare benefits from aged and disabled immigrants who entered and remain in the country legally but never obtained citizenship.
“These are people who played by the rules,” said New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, organizer of the gathering on this island in New York Harbor within sight of the Statue of Liberty. “They worked and paid taxes and were told, ‘If you get sick or become old, you’ll be treated by the same rules as anyone else.’ ”
But Congress has changed those rules, eliminating welfare benefits for legal immigrants as of August in what Giuliani characterized as an attempt to use anti-immigrant sentiment as a cover to shift a huge financial burden from the federal government to localities that are less equipped to handle it.
In repeated speeches at the two-day event, billed as the New York City Conference on Immigration, Giuliani extolled the role of immigrants in bringing energy and new ideas to revitalize America and condemned as inherently pessimistic the view that new immigrants represent an economic threat to those who are already here.
In putting his name to a petition aimed at persuading Congress to reverse its stance, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan noted that each of his grandparents, immigrants from Ireland, passed through Ellis Island. The roots of 40% of Americans intersect here, according to the Statue of Liberty Foundation.
Riordan called the congressional action unfair. “Leaving elderly [legal immigrants] with no means of support must not be the hallmark of a society which values equity, fairness and compassion,” said the mayor, whose attendance was in part a response to criticism that he has not been as outspoken on social justice issues as fellow Republican Giuliani.
Riordan called legal immigrants “the backbone of the culture and economy of Los Angeles” and said “diversity has made our country strong. Let us never again think of turning our backs on the immigrants that have made America the greatest country in the world.”
He and Giuliani were joined by elected officials from Miami, Philadelphia, Seattle, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Brownsville, Texas, as well as by Los Angeles County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and Gloria Molina, whose presence gave Los Angeles the largest contingent at the gathering.
This was perhaps fitting because Los Angeles County will have the largest problem of any locality if Congress remains firm. Nearly 100,000 county residents--1 in 5 of the aged or disabled legal immigrants who receive benefits nationwide--stand to lose half a billion dollars a year in aid. By contrast, 70,000 aged and disabled immigrants would be cut off in New York City; 57,000 in Miami’s Dade County.
Texas, California, New York and Florida together account for 3 out of 4 of the 200,000 disabled and 300,000 elderly legal immigrants who receive benefits nationwide.
Yaroslavsky said the losses will have a severe effect on local economies and on local governments, which will have to find money to manage fallout that is likely to include increased homelessness, illness and despair. He called Congress’ move to link immigration status with welfare reform “the mother of all legislative mistakes.”
Molina said that as immigrant advocates in Los Angeles have contacted the elderly and disabled and tried to get them to apply for citizenship--only to be told by the backlogged Immigration and Naturalization Service to expect yearlong delays--some aid recipients have contemplated suicide. “This is the only income many of these people have,” Molina said.
She predicted that half of those cut off in Los Angeles County would enroll in the county’s markedly less generous welfare program known as General Relief. General Relief payments of $212 per month could account for $131 million per year in county money that would have to be diverted from already suffering services such as county hospitals.
The county’s situation is already so tight that after the conference, Yaroslavsky and Burke left for Washington for a meeting with White House aides today in an attempt to win back other cuts in federal money for county hospitals.
The conference was organized in the midst of budget negotiations that have recently featured signs of a slight congressional retreat. Last week Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), who is drafting welfare legislation under a bipartisan budget agreement, suggested an alternative proposal that would remove aged and disabled immigrants from federal welfare rolls only if their sponsors earned more than 150% of the federal poverty level--about $19,500 a year for a family of three. Immigrant advocates said such a rule might disqualify half of the aid recipients.
However, Shaw also proposed disqualifying legal immigrants who turned 65 or became disabled after Aug. 22, 1996, the day President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill into law. He said legal immigrants who become disabled in the future “can go home if they don’t like what we have here.”