Restore benefits for the legal immigrants

Among the most hotly contested provisions of the new federal welfare law is one that will deny aid to legal immigrants who are not United States citizens. Nearly 40 percent of the money saved under the new law comes from cutting food stamps and supplemental security income (SSI) benefits to this group. Members of the National Governor’s Association asked Congress this week to restore benefits to some immigrants — a request that is both fair and compassionate.
Welfare reform was propelled through Congress by a “welfare to work” philosophy aimed at ending a perceived cycle of dependency on government assistance. But though they bear much of the burden of the new law, legal immigrants are hardly the ideal poster children for its underlying ideology. Legal immigrants do work, and they also pay taxes. As reporters for The Nation recently discovered, many legal immigrants are recruited to the United States to fill low-wage jobs in dangerous industries. But under the new law, low-wage workers who do not earn enough to support a family will be denied the assistance of food stamps. No matter how hard they work, they may still be unable to feed their families. And workers who are badly injured — a common situation, given the grueling conditions under which many immigrants labor — will be denied SSI benefits for the disabled. This is hardly the kind of reward-for-work program that Congress claims to promote.
In Minnesota, the Hmong community is among those affected by the new law. The Hmong are the state’s largest refugee group. They emigrated from Laos where they were armed and trained by the CIA to fight communism during the Vietnam War. Under the new law, elderly Hmong who are not U.S. citizens lose approximately $470 per month in SSI benefits. Clearly, the elderly cannot be expected to work to replace this loss of income. The only way to restore benefits, under the current law, is to gain citizenship. But the citizenship tests present an overwhelming obstacle to the Hmong elders who speak little or no English and may be illiterate even in their own language. Though many Hmong families have members who fought or died for the U.S. cause, their elderly or disabled relatives could be denied basic, subsistence-level aid.
Congressman Bruce Vento is currently proposing legislation that would automatically grant citizenship to the families of Hmong veterans who fought on the side of the United States. While that measure would help one group, it fails to address the larger injustices of the welfare law’s provision, which affects many other immigrants. If the law remains unchanged, states will have to pick up the pieces and find ways to keep affected immigrants from homelessness and hunger. The Minnesota welfare plan allots about $200 per month to elderly or disabled legal immigrants to compensate for the SSI benefits that were cut. Though it is better than nothing, it is still less than half of previous benefits and represents a severe hardship to those who already live on a limited income. A better solution is for Congress to restore federal SSI benefits and food stamps to legal immigrants who need them to survive.