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Deal Them Out

food stamps
Christopher Gardner

Hard Times Ahead for Immigrants

By Michael Learmonth

MANUEL MONTANO has a grim task. On Aug. 1 he and other county social workers will drop letters in the mail informing 15,414 noncitizen immigrants that their food stamps will be cut off on August 31.

Montano is an eligibility worker at the Social Services Agency, which is charged with carrying out welfare reform in Santa Clara County. Despite simple terms like "block grants," "time limits" and "reform," the changes to welfare actually add layers of complexity to Montano's job. From Montano's seat, "welfare reform" really means a maze of new rules that cut people off from assistance.

"There is the perception out there that welfare reform is simplifying things," says Hector Garza, director of Montano's district office. "Not so. Eligibility becomes more complicated."

At press time, the details of California's welfare reform proposal are the focus of intense horse trading between Gov. Pete Wilson and the legislature. And while some details of the new plan remain muddy, others are already going into effect in the county.

The most immediate impact on Santa Clara County comes next month, when 15,414 legal immigrants, including 4,500 under 18 years of age, become ineligible for food stamps. New applications for food stamps submitted by legal immigrants have been denied since April 1.

As of Aug. 31, legal immigrants can only receive food stamps if they have worked in the U.S. for a total of 10 years or have served in the armed forces. Refugees are only eligible for their first five years in the U.S.

The other major change will be new eligibility rules for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the $640 monthly federal payment that 11,484 elderly and disabled immigrants in Santa Clara County depend on to survive. Beginning immediately, any immigrant who arrived in the U.S. before Aug. 22, 1996, will never be eligible for SSI--not if they grow old and have no family to support them and not if they become disabled and can no longer work.

The new limits on food stamps and SSI were instituted by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, signed into law by President Clinton in August 1996. The law was designed to cut welfare spending by $54 billion over the next five years. Forty-four percent of the cuts affect legal immigrants.

While the law prohibits immigrants from receiving food stamps, it does not prohibit states from providing them--as long as they foot the bill. The Welfare Conference Committee negotiating California's version of welfare reform recommended spending $100 million to provide food stamps to the state's immigrants. But Gov. Wilson is opposed to any general-fund appropriation for immigrants, and Richard Hobbs, director of citizenship and immigrant programs at the county Department of Human Relations, is not optimistic.

"Primarily we're telling people not to count on food stamps," he says. "My biggest concern is legal immigrant children who are not going to have food."

Immigrants will bear the immediate effects of welfare reform, but the longer-term cuts--in the form of two-year time limits and five-year lifetime limits--will begin affecting the rest of the welfare population in 1998. Inevitably, some of the 30,911 families in Santa Clara County that now depend on AFDC will be caught without a safety net.

Alette Lundberg, manager of the county Employment Support Initiative, expects food banks and soup kitchens to feel the strain.

"We are holding our breath to see if immigrants receiving food stamps are going to be cut," she says. "You are going to see an increase in need at food centers if that happens."

"Second Harvest food bank has agreed to help legal immigrants who lose their food stamps through the end of the year," Hobbs says. And the United Way has pledged to raise $1 million to help pay for it.

Yolanda Rinaldo, director of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, argues that the 1996 bill was more cost-cutting than true reform. The reform, she says, "was the total federal deregulation of public assistance and turning it over to the states."

Cost-cutting by itself, she says, may reduce the welfare roles but doesn't do enough to promote long-term self-sufficiency. "If your whole focus is reducing the welfare caseload, you will still have poverty, you will still have hunger, you will still have homelessness."

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From the July 31-Aug. 6, 1997 issue of Metro.

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