Immigrants, Legal and Illegal, Biggest Losers in Reform

By Wirpsa, Leslie | National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

Immigrants, Legal and Illegal, Biggest Losers in Reform


Wirpsa, Leslie, National Catholic Reporter


LOS ANGELES -- On a Thursday morning in September, the ramifications of the sweeping welfare reform law signed recently by President Clinton turned from rhetoric into real life outside the back door of St. Vincent's parish not far from downtown Los Angeles.

There, a line of Mexican immigrant women balancing children on their hips or pushing toddlers in strollers waited to receive cans of peaches, bags of rice and loaves of bread--a donation from the parish's outreach ministry.

Conversations with several of these women revealed a picture that contradicts vindictive political and media portrayals of immigrants who cross the border to freeload on the toil of U.S. taxpayers. Almost all of the women outside St. Vincent's had husbands who 'worked long hours earning low wages or held jobs outside of the home themselves.

Most of these family units, regardless of the documentation status of the parents, had been contributing to the state and federal tax bases for years. Most received modest amounts of public assistance--some, because of shame, a work ethic or lack of documentation, were not receiving any at all. Most of the children of these families, many of whom will suffer disproportionately from the welfare overhaul, were not "illegal aliens" at all, but U.S. citizens, born in America.

Take Sara, mother of 18-month-old Martin. (These are not their real names). Sara's husband works 10-hour shifts fixing tires, earning about $150 a week. He also earns a small commission at night moonlighting, selling bread in his neighborhood. Neither of these jobs provides the family with health insurance. Sara said the state denied medical care for Martin because she and her husband have yet to obtain permanent resident documents. Yet Sara's husband has had taxes deducted from his paycheck for years. With the new legislation, the little support Sara and her husband receive to help raise Martin--$57 a month in food stamps--will disappear.

"My husband has so much deducted from his check, and now they don't want to give any assistance to my child," she said.

According to analysts at the National Immigration Law Center headquartered here, "The immigrant provisions of the welfare bill dramatically reduce access to government services for both legal and undocumented immigrants." The summary, written shortly after-the legislation passed in August, continued, "For the first time, legal immigrants who have lived here for many years will not have equal access to the programs that their taxes fund."

"Immigrants were by far the biggest losers in the bill, singled out for more than 44 percent of the total federal budget cuts effected by the bill, even though they represent only about 5 percent of all welfare recipients," center experts wrote.

Roberto Lovato directs the Central American Resource Center -- CARECEN -- in Los Angeles. Although the percentage of immigrants who receive welfare is. similar to the U.S.-born population, "there are people who desperately need what little support welfare gives them" among the immigrant population, Lovato said. The bile he said, is putting "the safety net at risk."

According to David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles and director of the Alta California Policy Research Center, one service extensively is a program for birthing and obstetric care. The elimination of this program will greatly affect the health of children who, once they are born, will be U.S. citizens. "It is less than one percent of the Medi-Cal programs," Hayes-Bautista said, referring to state medical assistance programs. "We can spend that in a good weekend with a bunch of heart attacks,"

Elderly and disabled immigrants are another vulnerable group affected by the reforms. Analysts predict aged immigrants living on Supplemental Security Income in nursing homes will face uncertain futures. Without these checks, the homes will find it difficult to care for these patients; but the broad reforms will simultaneously undermine the capacity of their families to provide for them independently. …

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