Social Safety Net for Immigrants Safe - for Now Benefits Restored for Legal Immigrants, but Future Help Doubtful

Article excerpt

This was to be the long hot summer legal immigrants have been dreading for almost a year.

A big provision of last year's welfare reform bill was to go into effect by August, stripping key federal benefits from legal non-citizens, many of them elderly and disabled.

But a quiet backlash has been brewing, resulting in - on paper at least - reinstatement of many of those benefits. The budget deal struck by President Clinton and congressional leaders earlier this month would allow legal immigrants who are already living in the United States to continue collecting Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an entitlement program that provides stipends for the elderly, blind, and physically disadvantaged. The president calls it one of his biggest victories from the fiscal negotiations. Conservative Republicans say that at least future legal US immigrants will be largely ineligible for SSI rolls. "As long as we stop the SSI from growing, and cut off the magnet effect, it solves the larger problem," says Florida Republican Clay Shaw, a welfare reform leader in the last Congress. Approximately 51 percent of SSI benefits go to elderly noncitizens, something Representative Shaw says was never intended by the authors of the original law. The fiscal 1998 budget deal's provisions have yet to be drafted into specific law. But interim help may be on the way for legal immigrants, as well. Supplemental 1997 spending bills now wending their way through the House and Senate would provide a "bridge" of SSI benefits until the new budget could presumably take effect. The catalyst for legal immigrants' reversal of fortune has been intense lobbying pressure from immigrants' rights groups, state governors, and most importantly, Mr. Clinton. For months, his plan to restore many benefits to 350,000 of the 500,000 immigrants most severely affected by welfare reform went nowhere. In the context of the larger budget however, he seems to have been successful. For budget hawks in Washington, the reduction or elimination of benefits to legal immigrants has been an elusive target in the never-ending quest for a balanced budget. As originally passed, the welfare-reform law would save $13 billion by reducing immigrant benefits. …