Agencies prepare for welfare reform

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For the past year, community agencies and churches that serve Hmong, Hispanics, Russians and other immigrants in Minnesota have been encouraging them to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Now, the agencies plan to ask the Legislature for money to boost classes statewide for citizenship preparation, English classes and work literacy classes that prepare immigrants for jobs.
They also will ask for money to open workshops in school gyms and community centers to streamline immigration paperwork, photographs and application information for the citizenship exam.
And they’ll ask state legislators not to deny immigrants welfare, Medicaid or other services that states can choose to deny to noncitizens under the new federal welfare law.
“It is in the financial self-interest of the state to do this,” said Jim Anderson, a human services planner for Ramsey County and one of the leaders of the effort.
“Here in Ramsey County we’re talking about (the) loss of millions of dollars in federal benefits for non-citizens (because of welfare reform).”
Those losses will occur in some of the poorest neighborhoods, Anderson said.
“But the benefits go far beyond the bottom line,” he said. “It’s very important that those people become enfranchised and empowered in the community, that they feel this is their long-term home.”
About 7,000 Minnesota immigrants are expected to become U.S. citizens this year, up from 2,700 in 1991. It’s a record, and immigration officials say the number is likely to continue to soar.
A big reason for the boom — which also is occurring nationally — is that two laws recently passed by Congress will create some of the most significant changes in decades in immigrants’ rights and benefits.
Under the new welfare law, for example, most legal immigrants will no longer be eligible for food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, a cash benefit for the elderly and disabled. Also, states were given the option to deny welfare, Medicaid, social services and local government benefits to noncitizens.
About 30,000 immigrants are likely to be affected in Minnesota, according to state human services officials. The state stands to lose millions of dollars in federal funding because of the cuts. The provisions go into effect in Minnesota next year.
Meanwhile, a new immigration law passed last week requires for the first time that families assume greater financial responsibility for family members they bring to the United States. And the new law cracks down hard on illegal immigrants.
“People are scared, especially the elders,” said Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.
Sai Kong, a 50-year-old Hmong woman who is disabled and receives SSI, said she is worried about the changes.
“I worry that my children and me will have no food and will have to live on the streets,” she said. “How will we survive?”