Not-so ‘pretty land’ braces for welfare cut

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas (AP) Amid a skyline of barren hills and grain silos, alongside a littered rail yard roamed by mangy dogs, live the residents of Tierra Linda, Spanish for pretty land.
But this land is not pretty.
This is where poverty dwells. In the plywood houses and trailers lining the gravel roads. In the drifting stench of a nearby stockyard. And in the minds of the hundreds of people — many of them legal immigrants — who call this dreary enclave home.
This colonia on the Texas-Mexico border is one place where new federal welfare reforms will hit hard.
Several states, including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California, have already started to put the new federal mandates into effect by denying food stamps to some legal immigrants.
Although other parts of the country have greater numbers of legal immigrants, this county and others along the Texas border have a larger percentage of their populations facing cuts.
And in a region with some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country, the results could be devastating.
Here in Starr County, home to 50,000 mostly Hispanic residents, one out of every eight people is a legal immigrant who stands to lose food-stamp assistance.
Another one in 38 will lose their Supplemental Security Income, a cash payment to poor people who are elderly or disabled.
“If they take our food stamps away, what can we do?” 32-year-old Julie Martinez worries, her brown eyes scanning the one-bedroom trailer she shares with her four children.
Unemployed and separated from her husband, Martinez receives about $400 a month in food stamps for her family. Under the new welfare law, she risks losing one-fourth of that money because she is not a U.S. citizen.
Her children’s benefits will continue because they were born in the United States, but Martinez wonders how they will survive when living on their current stipend is a daily ordeal.
“We are the second-poorest county in the entire United States. Of course it will have an impact,” said Holly Guerrero, city secretary in Rio Grande City, the Starr County seat. “We have five or six people coming by this office a day asking for jobs.”
The welfare overhaul ends six decades of guaranteed cash assistance for the poor. For U.S. citizens, it imposes time limits and work requirements in an effort to ease people off welfare and back to work.
For most legal immigrants, the law imposes an outright ban on receiving food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. Legal immigrants who are veterans or have worked and paid taxes in America for at least 10 years are exempt.
The law also prohibits legal immigrants now entering the country from receiving most federal benefits during their first five years here.
Officials estimate that nationwide, 900,000 legal immigrants will lose food stamps under the law and another 350,000 elderly or disabled immigrants will lose SSI benefits. In Texas, 187,000 immigrants will be cut from the food stamp program and 53,000 will lose SSI.
Just when those losses will begin depends on when an immigrant was last certified to receive benefits.
Immigrants receiving SSI will be notified of any changes to their benefits by March 1997, said Social Security Administration spokesman Tom Margenau.
Sylvia Lopez left Mexico 15 years ago to come to the United States. Now she’s divorced and raising her two children in a tiny house without air conditioning on $500 a month, including $313 in food stamps.
“It’s going to be hard here, but it’s worse there,” she said. “There are more possibilities here. Over there, there’s no jobs.”