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Amid Welfare Cuts, States Try to Aid Immigrants

An Iranian man living in Denver can't muster the courage to tell his elderly mother - a legal immigrant who has lived in America for almost 20 years - that her monthly checks from the federal government are about to end. His best hope now is that the state of Colorado will continue some of her subsidies.

Legal immigrants across the US are beginning to see the states as their last best hope to offset the imminent loss of all federal benefits - a cutoff required by the new national welfare-reform law.

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State officials by and large seem to be sympathetic. Of 40 states that have filed spending plans, 36 report they will continue benefits to legal immigrants who fall off the federal rolls.

"In the small world of welfare, we are in pretty good shape," says Dick Powers of the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance. The state has enough money to help needy legal immigrants - at least for now - because it's currently getting more money from Washington than it needs for cash assistance to a dwindling welfare caseload.

But states with large numbers of immigrants may not have the same luxury. New York Gov. George Pataki (R) anticipates spending an estimated $240 million to cover legal immigrants who will lose federal aid.

In Texas, Gov. George W. Bush (R) argues that changing the rules for legal immigrants already in the US was unfair.

"He has no concern about prospectively saying to future immigrants, 'You will no longer be eligible,' " says Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "But he is calling on the federal government to provide funding for this part of the population."

The National Governors Association says many governors, including Mr. Bush, are asking for extra help.

"We aren't talking about reopening the welfare bill. We are talking about amending a little thing on the edge of it," says Nolan Jones at the NGA.

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President Clinton has put forward a plan to restore many benefits to 350,000 of the 500,000 immigrants most severely affected by welfare reform. Benefits most at risk include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly benefit (averaging $400 per recipient) that augments the incomes of the aged or disabled; Medicaid, which helps the same group pay medical bills; and food stamps.

But many lawmakers say revising the law to soften its impact on immigrants is unlikely.

"It's just not going to happen," says Rep. Clay Shaw Jr. (R) of Florida, who led the charge for welfare reform in the last Congress.

For one, federal budgeteers would fight such a move. About one-fourth of the savings expected from welfare cuts will come from ending benefits to legal immigrants

While Congressman Shaw expects to feel more pressure to revise the law as welfare reform kicks into effect over the next four months, he says, "We've really got to believe in what we are going to accomplish with this, because we are going to be dogged all the way." He points out that 51 percent of SSI benefits go to elderly noncitizens, something he says was never intended by the authors of the original legislation.

Shaw and other Republicans are open to one possible compromise that would provide states with additional block-grant money for programs like food stamps. Mr. Clinton has sought to restore $10 billion in benefits. But Republicans on Capitol Hill would approve no more than a total of $2 billion for states.

The pending cut in benefits has prompted a large number of legal immigrants to apply for US citizenship. Almost 2 million are expected to apply this year, three times more than applied in 1995.

But for elderly immigrants, the naturalization process can be daunting. The US Immigration and Naturalization Service reports that only 9 percent of immigrants older than 65 ever naturalize. Such is the case for the elderly Iranian woman now living in Denver. Her son, who asked not to be named, explains that the entire family fled to the US after the Khomeni government took power in the late 1970s.

"She has gone through this before. She was a wealthy woman and had everything taken from her," he says. Undergoing the naturalization process, including the exams to become a citizen, would be difficult. "Her English is still not very good," he says "There is no way she could pass the test."

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