APRIL 17, 1997
Legal immigrants are beginning to feel the impacts of last year's Welfare Reform bill. Legal immigrants who have been receiving Supplemental Security Income [SSI] will lose that check on August 1st if they have not become citizens. Nationwide 500,000 people, the majority of them over 65, will lose benefits. Elizabeth Brackett, of WTTW-Chicago, looks at the impact of the proposed cuts on the Russian immigrant community in Chicago.
SPOKESMAN: Who is President today?
A RealAudio version of of this segment is available.
February 11, 1997:
California Governor Pete Wilson's workfare program.
February 6, 1997:
A report on finding affordable daycare as state and local subsidies are cut.
February 4, 1997:
The impact of last summer's welfare reforms on state governments and a panel of regional commentators with their accessments of the reforms.
December 2, 1996:
Elizabeth Brackett reports on the growing business of welfare.
October 22, 1996:
Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) answers viewer questions about the new welfare reforms in an Online NewsHour Forum.
October 1, 1996:
A team of NewsHour correspondents report across the nation on Day One of the new welfare reforms.
June 7, 1996:
Wisconsin officials answer your questions about that state's welfare innovations.
Read a special Online NewsHour backgrounder explaning the challenges states face when reforming welfare.
The Department of Health and Human Services' welfare reform page.
BORIS RUBIN: Bill Clinton.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Russian refugee Boris Rubin is trying hard to learn enough American civics to pass the test to become a citizen but his English is so poor he doesn't think he will make it--neither does his 85-year-old mother-in-law.
ROSA KOSTOVESKAY: Who is the President of the United States?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A few blocks away there is tension as these two Russian refugees drill each other for the test. They've been doing this since a letter arrived from the Social Security Administration in February. The letter said they would lose their supplement security income, or SSI, in August if they haven't become citizens. SSI is a federal cash grant for the elderly and disabled who have little income or assets. Social workers have come to see if they understand the letter, which was written in English.
SOCIAL WORKER: What they're saying is that you may lose your benefits unless you become citizens.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The family will lose their benefits as a result of welfare reform. Previously, legal immigrants could get SSI after their first five years in the country. Refugees and those with political asylum were immediately eligible. The new law bars legal immigrants from ever receiving SSI benefits and food stamps. Refugees and those with political asylum are eligible for their first five years in the country then are cut off. There are a few exceptions. Legal immigrants who can prove they've worked in the U.S. for 10 years, or are on active military duty, or are veterans. The Social Security Administration predicts that 500,000 legal immigrants will lose their benefits this August. In Illinois, it's projected that 22,000 legal immigrants will lose their SSI, a cash grant of no more than $484.00 a month.
MARY MAHLER, Social Security Administration, Chicago Region: It's a very serious situation.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Mary Mahler is with the Social Security Administration in Chicago.
MARY MAHLER: We have people who are very elderly. I mean in Illinois alone we have 100 people who are over 100 years old who are getting SSI. And of those 100 people, 10 of them will definitely be suspended. And they came into the country with the understanding that as long as they followed the rules, they came in legally, that, you know, they would be taken care of. And the rules have changed.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Illinois Congressman Philip Crane, a strong supporter of welfare reform, says the need to balance the budget means the country can no longer afford to support non-citizens.
REP. PHILIP CRANE, (R) Illinois: It would be marvelous if we could afford this but the estimates are in the absence of reform over the next 10 years it's going to cost American taxpayers, working Americans, over 380 billion dollars in increased taxes. It was never understood by our ancestors when they came to these shores that you came to the United States for a free ride.
PROTESTERS: We want jobs
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Welfare reform has brought protest. In Chicago those protesting against cuts for legal immigrants were marching alongside those objecting to cuts for mothers and children on welfare.
SPOKESPERSON: What kind of a country do we live in when we ask this nation's elderly and disabled legal permanent residents to give up their benefits to balance the budget?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Protester Barbara Otto heads a coalition trying to save SSI.
BARBARA OTTO, The SSI Coalition: The supplemental security income program took 40 percent of the hit in federal welfare cuts. and that is largely falling on the back of the nation's elderly and disabled populations. And that is part of the problem. This is not what we were thinking of when we talked about ending welfare as we knew it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Congressman Clay Shaw was one of the architects of welfare reform.
REP. CLAY SHAW, (R) Florida: This strictly, as far as the non-citizens were concerned, was a budgetary consideration. We found that it was large sums of money, somewhere around $18 billion, and we just needed to save this money. We also found that this was being an attraction, that we were becoming the nursing home for the world, and we found that this just simply was not the best way to go, and was not the way the taxpayers would have us spend their money.
SPOKESPERSON: Boris is, he's 60 years old, and having a very difficult time studying--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Elena and Boris Rubin became refugees after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant left many family members ill. They say they were told they would be eligible for government benefits by a U.S. immigration officer in Moscow. The three of them have been living on $1300 a month SSI grant since they arrived six years ago, money 85-year-old Bella Dubovskaya thought was secure.
IRENA BEREZIN, Council for Jewish Elderly, interpreting for BELLA DUBOVSKAYA: They thought it was similar to a pension. She worked her whole life in Russia, and that is what they heard back in Russia before they immigrated. She doesn't sleep at night, she has terrible headaches because she just has no idea what is going to happen to her.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Rosa Kostovetskay's 84-year-old mother is even in worse shape. After several strokes she is bedridden and her daughter cares for her at home. The family left the Ukraine five years ago to escape the persecution they felt as Jews.
IRENA BEREZIN interpreting for ROSA KOSTOVETSKAY: It's a lot of pressure on her particularly because she doesn't know what's going to happen with her mother, if they're going to lose the apartment, and then what is she going to do with her mother? She said the only choice is they are to be homeless.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Immigration & Naturalization Service has just redefined what it takes to get an exemption from the citizenship test--a change that may help these families.
TERRENCE O'REILLY, INS: We have finalized the rule that will allow individuals who through the certification of licensed practiced physicians and clinical psychologists in the United States may be exempt from the English language and civics requirements.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Rosa Kostoveskay's mother will probably be exempt from taking the test under the new rules but there is a catch-22. The INS says even if a person is too disabled to take the test, they must be able to take the citizenship oath and understand what they are saying--something Kostoveskay says her mother couldn't do.
ROSA KOSTOVESKAY: My mother, she is a very sick woman.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The INS also says age alone is not enough to exempt a person from the citizenship test. So it is unclear whether immigrants like Roman Shlyakhesman, Boris Rubin, or Bella Dubovskaya could get an exemption.
TEACHER IN ENGLISH CLASS: What is your full name?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The fear of losing their income has sent immigrants scurrying to English classes. The Council for Jewish Elderly in Chicago sponsors this class. The average age is 75. And, for most, it is tough going.
JOHN KIESELHORST, English Teacher: I'm not entirely sure that any of them are going to get fluent enough to pass the citizenship test. At this point we are hoping that we can get some of them to that point. There are others that face extreme pedagogical difficulties. Some of them can't hear very well. Some can't see very well. Most of the ones we are teaching here don't know the Latin alphabet. They write in Cyrillic script, the Russian script.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Refugees and those with asylum do have five years of benefits, which Congressman Crane says should be enough time to learn the language.
REP. PHILIP CRANE: I mean you don't have to reach an Einstein level of comprehension, but to reach some basics in mastery of our language, that's not that difficult. And in fact I can't believe that most of those people didn't kick up a lot of English on the streets, as I indicated I did when I was in the army in Germany.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Another big problem is the long lines at the Immigration Office. It now takes seven to nine months to get through the citizenship process in most states. And in another catch-22 legal immigrants can't apply to become citizens until they have been in this country for four years and nine months, meaning refugees and those with asylum will lose their benefits before they get through the system.
SPOKESPERSON: We see far reaching effects for our whole community--
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Fearful immigrants from many countries told their stories to public officials at this community meeting in March.
CHEL PHACH, Cambodian Association of Illinois [interpreting for woman]: She say that her name is Mrs. Ult. She came to the United States. She received SSI, and if the government--I think that Your Honor here is going to cut her SSI--the only thing is she is going to die.
KYUNG HWAN SUN [Translator - SUE KANG, Korean American Senior Center]: I don't have many years to live in this world but I don't know how I am going to be living in this world without an income.
SAM SVOISKY [Translator - JANE TANNENBAUM, Council for Jewish Elderly]: He says here in this bag he has a second letter that says that his SSI is going to be terminated. But he has his violin, and there is one store somewhere where he lives, where he can play violin and maybe he could earn $10 or $15 so that he doesn't die of hunger.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Moved by what they heard state legislators promised results.
REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY, Illinois State Representative: I will be fighting for legislation that will have the state make up some of the benefits that have been cut at the federal level.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A package of legislation that would enable the state to pick up the cost of the benefits has been introduced in the Illinois legislature. The bills would, in effect, create a state SSI and restore food stamps and Medicaid, but there's little support for the bills in the legislature in a state where, like most states, there's already a struggle to meet the state's balanced budget requirement.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Illinois' Governor Jim Edgar says cutting SSI benefits was not what he had in mind when he and other Republican governors pushed for welfare reform. And he says there is no way his state can pick up the cost of the benefits.
GOVERNOR JIM EDGAR, (R) Illinois: It's about a $150 million price tag, and we don't have $150 million. We have made the decision we are going to continue to fund Medicaid for legal immigrants. We no longer have to do that, but we feel that we should do that, and that's about $110 million. But SSI and food stamps are two areas that the state has never been involved in. The federal government has always assumed that responsibility. And we don't have the resources to pick up another federal program if they have ended.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: After President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill last August 22nd, he promised to fix provisions dealing with legal immigrants. And many immigrants still think he will.
IRENA BEREZIN interpreting for ELENA RUBIN: She believes that President Clinton won't allow this law to take effect.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The President has proposed changes but they are bogged down in budget negotiations. Plus, there is strong reluctance in Congress to reopen welfare reform legislation.
REP. CLAY SHAW: The President would like for us to amend the SSI bill from the welfare bill that he signed into law and was passed by the Republican Congress.. He would like for us to change the law as to the SSI payments to people who were here on the date of enactment of the welfare bill. On the Republican side we're resisting that. We don't think we should do that. And we're not going to.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Shaw says there is some movement toward a transitional block grant paid to states in proportion to their immigrant population, though it would not come close to replacing the cuts. And with the August deadline fast approaching, even those who must administer the new law are concerned.
MARY MAHLER: It's very stressful for our employees. They want to help people, they want to administer the law at the same time. But they are kind of torn.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What do you think will happen to these people?
MARY MAHLER: I think that's a real good question. I'm not sure.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Meanwhile, in two other states, New York and California, lawsuits have been filed challenging the provisions of the welfare bill that denies benefits to legal immigrants.