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Legal Immigrants Facing Grim Prospects Without Welfare

August 9, 1996

MIAMI (AP) _ Juana Rosa Pinares, turned down for U.S. citizenship last year, will lose her food money. Mirna Flores, who can’t apply for citizenship for another three years, may never realize her dream of becoming a nurse.

At stake for Pinares, Flores and thousands of other legal immigrants are their federal welfare benefits, which will be cut off under legislation approved by Congress last week.

The law is expected to push many to apply to become Americans. Petitions for naturalization have surged in the past 18 months for several reasons, including the debate over welfare reform and other measures that take aim at immigrants.

The changes will start in stages as soon as President Clinton signs the bill, which he said he will do.

``One lady is saying God will take care of her. Other people say the government is going to put them in boats and send them back to Cuba,″ said Ariela Rodriguez, a director of Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers of Dade County. ``Some say they’ll live under bridges. Some say they’ll commit suicide.″

Pinares is a client of Rodriguez’s group, a private organization that provides social services for the elderly. The 67-year-old widow said she lives off $489 monthly checks from her late husband’s retirement pension. To eat, she depends on $67 per month in food stamps.

Pinares, a Cuban, applied for U.S. citizenship last year but was rejected because her English wasn’t good enough. She said she is studying English and will try again. But in the meantime, she doesn’t know how she will buy food.

``How am I going to eat?″ said Pinares, tears filling her eyes.

Flores, a 33-year-old divorced mother of three, came here as a political refugee from Nicaragua 10 years ago. She plans to start nursing courses this fall so she will be able to support her family without the monthly $390 in public assistance she now needs.

Flores wants to apply for citizenship but isn’t eligible yet because she has been a permanent resident for only two years. Flores said she will have to skip school and get a second job if her income is cut.

``My goal is to study and prepare myself,″ she said. ``But if the government cuts off the aid to my family, they are cutting off my future and the future of my children.″

The legislation will save the federal government money but burden states with large immigrant populations, such as California, Florida and New York.

``The implications for California are tremendous,″ said state Assemblyman Louis Caldera, a Democrat from Los Angeles. ``The needs don’t go away, the source of revenue goes away. It’s a false illusion to think the government will save dollars this way.″

April Herrle, spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, agreed. ``Where will these people go?″ she asked. ``They will go to our emergency rooms. They will end up on street corners.″

New York Gov. George Pataki said he may call a special session of the Legislature to address the welfare change.

When Clinton said last week he would sign the welfare reform package, he pledged to propose amendments to restore assistance to legal immigrants. But he didn’t say when and his chances don’t look good in the current Congress.

Exempted from the cuts will be immigrants who are honorably discharged U.S. veterans and their dependents, and those who have worked here and paid into the Social Security system for 10 years. Refugees and people granted asylum from troubles in their homeland will be limited to five years of welfare.

Medicaid for health emergencies will continue for all poor people, citizens or not.

There are 9.5 million legal, permanent-resident non-citizens in the United States, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Just under half live in California.

Some 2 million non-citizens receive food stamps, 800,000 receive Supplemental Security Income and 640,000 receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children, according to the federal agencies that administer the programs. The numbers overlap because most recipients get more than one benefit.

In Dade County, home to most of Florida’s non-citizen residents, the Little Havana group is recommending people apply immediately for citizenship if they qualify. If not, it recommends they get a job or seek help from whoever sponsored them to enter the country.

To become citizens, immigrants must be residents for five years, pass a test of their knowledge of English and U.S. history and government, and have a clean police record.

Some who could meet those qualifications choose not to try for a variety of reasons: force of habit, plans to eventually return to their country, or emotional ties to their homeland.

``It’s a very emotional thing to change your citizenship,″ said John Bulger, Florida coordinator of Citizenship USA, a temporary INS program to process a glut of naturalization petitions. ``Those ties run very, very deep.″

That may change soon for many immigrants.

Cristobol Azcuy, a 66-year-old Cuban who came to Miami in 1992, said he will petition for citizenship as soon as he is eligible next July. As a noncitizen, he stands to lose his only source of income _ $470 in monthly SSI checks.

``The best thing for me to do is become a U.S. citizen,″ Azcuy said.

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