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Austin Chronicle America the Brutal

By Kayte VanScoy

Shuffling into Webb Middle School with her social worker in tow, Tien Banh, a 40- year-old Vietnamese legal immigrant, looks slightly dazed. Her social worker sticks closely at her side, guiding her through the unfamiliar corridors to a brochure-stacked table in the school's cafeteria where volunteers are waiting to help with problems like hers. "I... got... letter," Banh says slowly, peering into the helpful faces of the Legal Aid workers, who understand immediately what kind of letter she means. The letter Banh recently received, along with 38,450 other Texas residents who survive on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), explains that because she is not a U.S. citizen, her SSI benefits will be cut off at the end of next month.

Banh relies on SSI, a federal subsidy for the disabled who cannot work. Although she is heavily medicated for schizo-affective disorder, Banh is able to work four hours per day at a local Hilton hotel laundry. Still, that job adds only $200 to her monthly $470 SSI stipend. Most of that income goes directly into paying her caretaker, with whom she lives, leaving a few dollars, she says, "for a little snack or a Pepsi."

Banh and thousands of others like her across the state have been caught up in the sweeping, bipartisan effort known as national welfare reform. The law -- "ending welfare as we know it" -- was signed on August 22, 1996, by President Clinton, who, some say, with the flourish of a pen threw out the immigrant baby with the welfare bath water. While voices on all sides of the debate clamored in agreement that the welfare system needed restructuring, the targeting of the immigrant community in the reform bill is perceived by many to be more than unnecessary. Critics say it can only be explained as part of the recent mass of anti-immigrant legislation which cropped up across the country in the mid-Nineties. Despite the fact that legal immigrants are statistically less likely to end up in the welfare system than U.S. citizens, and that recent studies show that their contribution to the economy far outweighs their burden, legal immigrants are widely perceived as freeloaders who have come to the U.S. to mooch off the social welfare system. "This new welfare reform is modeled to punish people," says Francisco Lopez, development director of El Buen Samaritano on South First Street, which offers assistance for the immigrant community.

Vietnamese legal immigrant Tien Banh, who is disabled, ponders the potential loss of her SSI benefits at a recent Legal Aid workshop at Webb Middle School.
photograph by Jana Birchum

In fact, in complete disproportion to their burden on the system, the welfare reform law affects immigrants more than any other single group. Under the new law, immigrants will be denied food stamps and SSI unless they are veterans, refugees, or can demonstrate that they have worked in the U.S. for 40 quarters, or 10 years. The same exceptions, with the addition of Cubans and Haitians, apply to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), which provides cash assistance in addition to dozens of other stop-gap social programs for families with children. TANF will not be immediately cut off in Texas, but will be phased out in one-, two-, and three-year intervals depending on the recipient's level of education and work experience -- the higher the experience and education levels, the less time left in the program. In addition, any new immigrants arriving in the U.S. after August 22, 1996 will now have to wait five years after their date of entry to apply for TANF. And thanks to changes accompanying the welfare law, city and state workers now have a broader mandate to report undocumented immigrants to federal authorities, although several communities, including Austin, have made efforts to assure immigrants that mass round-ups of illegal immigrants will not take place.

Adding to the stress in immigrant communities -- which are already facing a deadline for the end of welfare subsidies -- is the 1994 Immigration and Nationality Act, which imposed a September 30, 1997 deadline for naturalization of undocumented immigrants. On that date, anyone, legal or illegal, who is not yet naturalized, will be not only cut off from federal assistance, but asked to leave the country. These "deported" individuals can return to apply for citizenship, but depending on the length of time they spent in this country, they will have to wait from 3-10 years. Due to this and other immigrant-targeting laws, such as California's notorious Proposition 187, which denies education and health care to the children of illegal immigrants, confusion and fear are running rampant in a community which is already separated by barriers of language and culture from the population at large. Recent reports of immigrant suicides in the wake of welfare reform have served to wake up the nation to their plight, and those who work in immigrant communities say the panic is likely to continue as more people are bumped from the welfare rolls.

While the social fabric is racing to shore up the U.S. citizens coming off of welfare, options for legal immigrants are quite limited. Legal immigrants can become citizens, they can leave the country, or they can rely on churches and other stop-gap measures to help them in time of need. But legal immigrants say they are especially hurt that they can not turn to a government which they have subsidized with their own tax dollars. "No one is going to justify this [welfare reform bill] on a rational basis. It's mean-spirited. These people came here under one set of rules and fulfilled everything that was expected of them, and now the rules have changed," says Anne Dunkelberg, a researcher at the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin.

Missed Information

Hye Nan Jung, 33, also came to Webb Middle School seeking answers from the Legal Aid volunteers, but not about her welfare status. Jung's children have been taken away by her boyfriend, and she is looking for help to get them back. Jung is a legal immigrant from Korea who receives food stamps, but she seems completely surprised by the suggestion that she might be losing those benefits soon. Considering her other difficulties, it is not surprising that food stamps would be the last thing on Jung's mind, but according to Dana Nelson of Legal Aid, Jung's ignorance is all too common. The welfare office "doesn't ask any questions until she's up for her annual certification appointment. They'll verify her immigration status and the next words out of their mouths are `Do you have 40 quarters?'" says Nelson. Jung does not have the 10 years of work experience, so if she does not meet any of the other exceptions -- veteran or dependent, refugee or asylee -- she will be dropped from food stamps immediately without any recourse. Unlike food stamp clients, SSI recipients have at least begun to be informed by letter, but because discussions about the law change SSI eligibility almost daily, the letters have temporarily stopped being issued.

"They are naturalizing because of fear, the fear of potentiallly losing their benefits," says Luis Plascensia,who is shown at left, teaching Antonio Mauricio during a citizenship class at El Buen Samaritano.

photograph by Jana Birchum

"We are dealing with a large community who is totally confused about the changes in the law and about the impact," explains Nidia Salamanca, director of the Political Asylum Project of Austin. In sharp contrast to the lack of information in many communities, however, the tighter-knit Hispanic community is suffering from information overload. On the Spanish-only Univision network, daily news reports have been filled with hysterical exaggeration and fear tactics about welfare reform, including a daily countdown to April 1, the day that the welfare clock began ticking on most benefits. The vast majority of legal immigrants in Texas are Hispanic, upwards of 90%, and volunteers are finding that many of them are terrified to seek help with questions about welfare reform changes because of their fear of deportation. "My biggest problem right now is that I can't get the clients in the door. I know the projected food stamp cut off for Travis County is 1,988 people, but where the hell are they?" wonders Nelson, whose Legal Aid project focusing on the 40 quarters provision has seen only two clients in three weeks.

Whether it stems from a lack of information or too much of the wrong information, it is not only welfare clients who are confused about changes in the law. "It's totally up in the air. The Social Security Administration has no idea what's going on right now," says Nelson. They're not the only ones. With the budget debate raging on the floor of Congress, news about what provisions may be made to either reinstate or extend benefits to legal immigrants is nearly impossible to follow. "I'm giving presentations and I'm having to say `This is what the law says today'," explains Legal Aid volunteer Lourdes Flores.

Social Insecurity

Adding to the confusion is the fact that immigration is generally a family affair, and family members do not usually share the same immigration status. "In any immigrant family you could have a U.S. citizen, a legal resident (green card holder), another in the process of gaining legal residency, and another who is undocumented. So, for those who thought this law would impact only illegal immigrants, that is not the case," says Lopez. The family combinations of legal status account for infinite scenarios. Quite common are the legal immigrant parents with children who are citizens, due to the fact that they were born in the U.S. Those children will be able to continue receiving public assistance, but their caretakers will be cut off. Also common is the citizen husband with the undocumented immigrant wife caring for their children. In many cases, it is the wife or other family caretakers such as grandmothers and aunts who are facing both deportation under the Immigration and Nationality Act, and being cut off of the public assistance rolls. According to Lopez, the family pressures are leading to increased spousal abuse in immigrant communities, which is further complicated by going unreported due to fear of deportation.

Also going unreported is the undocumented work done by legal immigrants which these new federal laws will wipe out. This undocumented labor is known as the "gray economy," according to Dunkelberg. She describes it as the underground network of undocumented labor which shores up the mainstream economic life of the nation. From construction to cleaning services to child care, undocumented, untaxed immigrant labor is the backbone of our economy in many arenas. Unfortunately for the immigrants, however, if it isn't taxed, it doesn't count.

For example, the new welfare reforms may result in the loss of family caregivers who are either forced to take jobs or to return to their countries of origin. However, the government is not taking into account the fact that stay-at-home mothers who collect welfare to care for children who will eventually become productive tax-paying citizens are the cheapest childcare workers you can buy. Rosemary Patterson, public information officer of the Dept. of Human Services, points out that the government allotment of $183 a month is a good deal in a country where child care costs are prohibitively expensive.

Although many immigrants, particularly migrant laborers, have been working in the U.S. for well over the 10-year minimum required to continue receiving public assistance, because their employers were not reliable bookkeepers or taxpayers, their labor can not be counted toward the necessary 40 quarters. There is a small crack in the welfare reform armor, however, and immigrants like Banh may be saved by it.

With painful slowness, Banh relates the story of her move to the U.S. from Vietnam, as Flores and Banh's social worker listen, hoping to glean clues to her residency history. "I want come American and get medicine and my mother say you come get medicine and I happy. I no food, I too cold some day, very hot some day, my brother say you don't need scared anything, just go American and get medicine and I say okay," says Banh. Somewhere in her meticulous retelling, Flores begins to piece together that Banh's brother, Charlie, is a U.S. citizen who delivers mail in California, and that her sister is not a citizen, but lives in Austin. These clues will become very important as Banh, who only has nine quarters of documented work history, tries to piece together a picture which will allow her to both stay in the U.S. and to continue receiving her SSI benefits.

The key to Banh's salvation are the "quarters" of work, generating taxes which are stored up in the social welfare system like a bank account. Although Banh may not have a 40-quarter bank account, in response to welfare reform, the government has softened its stance somewhat, and is now telling social workers and lawyers that legal immigrants can use "spare" quarters of family members to augment their own totals. In addition, the history of where Banh has lived, with which family members, and for how long, will become important in the complex matrix of eligibility requirements which will allow her to repeal the removal of her SSI benefits.

Original estimates of the numbers of illegal immigrants in Texas set to lose food stamps were 141,000 recipients and estimates on the loss of SSI benefits were 38,450. Those working with the immigrant community now suspect that those numbers could come down significantly as families like Banh's pool their quarters to keep family members on the welfare rolls.

Perhaps most confusing is the fact that daily news accounts are constantly changing the picture of welfare reform, especially for SSI recipients, as President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress battle it out over reinstating some SSI to immigrants. "The same group of leaders who three years ago advocated for cuts to legal immigrants are the ones this year saying maybe we went too far," points out Lopez, who is skeptical about the motives of Capitol Hill politicians. Patterson notes that some reform might have been warranted since the SSI program had grown by "hundreds of percents" since 1990 and "a large portion of those were immigrants." Now, to hear the suddenly contrite politicians tell it, no one could have foreseen the panic caused by cutting SSI to the immigrant community, but volunteers who work with immigrants are not buying that argument.

"We had plenty of warnings about the suicides in the Hispanic community. The only reason that changes to SSI are being made is that it's gotten such bad press," counters Nelson, explaining that even the changes being proposed do not go far enough. Clinton is arguing for a provision in the new budget which would allow anyone who was in the U.S. prior to August 22, 1996 to be grandfathered into SSI in case of future disability, and it looks like Congress may go along with his proposal. However, no provision is being made for people who are simply aged but not disabled to be included on the rolls, as they were prior to welfare reform. "We're talking a 70-year-old, Spanish-speaking woman with no source of income. What are we going to do with her? That's why they start to commit suicide," worries Nelson.

Citizen Gain

The ticking welfare reform and Immigration Act time clocks have created a race for citizenship all over the U.S. Though not all were seeking citizenship, El Buen Samaritano served 5,000 people in 1995, but Lopez estimates it will have 12,000 clients come through the door by the end of this year. In fact, the growing numbers seeking citizenship have slowed the process in immigrant-heavy states like Texas and California to as long as two years. That two-year wait means that undocumented immigrants are in the Catch-22 situation of having applied for citizenship to keep from being deported, but being forced to leave the country to wait for their processing dates. Because of the 1994 Act, which says they can only remain undocumented in the U.S. for one year, if immigrants opt to stay in the country to wait out the two years of processing, they will be banned from the U.S. for 10 years. The wait also means that legal immigrants cannot count on simply becoming citizens to save their welfare benefits.

Naturalized American citizen Elena Poutou (center) helps her mother, Juana Gonzalez, a legal Cuban immigrant, fill out forms at a citizenship class at El Buen Samaritano.

photograph by Jana Birchum

Immigrant advocates complain that pressuring people to relinquish their native citizenship is cruel. "Immigration should be a very rational decision. You go through all these emotional phases," explains Salamanca. "They are naturalizing because of fear, the fear of potentially losing their benefits," concurs Luis Plascensia, who teaches a citizenship class at El Buen Samaritano. Nelson points out that the issues can often be as practical as they are emotional. "It's a particularly big deal with Mexico because there are still issues about being able to go back and claim property once you've given up your citizenship," she explains.

In Austin, legal immigrants like 85-year-old Juana Gonzalez, originally from Cuba, are scrambling to secure citizenship status. She and several other immigrants recently attended citizenship classes offered at El Buen Samaritano, which is pitching in as best it can to aid those who fear losing their SSI benefits. However, Gonzalez's daughter, Elena Poutou, who accompanied her mother to a class last week, says that she and her mother are not acting out of fear, but rather from a sense of responsibility to the country they love. Although Gonzalez has been in the states for 17 years, Poutou says that her mother, who speaks little English, has been afraid to undertake citizenship classes because she suspected the students would be younger and would speak better English than herself. After receiving the letter announcing the end of Gonzalez's eligibility for the SSI benefits which partially support her ability to live on her own, however, Poutou felt that it was time to help her mother to join the rest of the family in attaining U.S. citizenship.

Further, Poutou says that she does not blame the government for threatening to cut off her mother's benefits. "I respect all the decisions of the government. I accept it because we are foreign," she says. She is concerned, though, about the lack of information regarding her mother's SSI status because of conflicting information from the government and the media. "I don't know what to do, and I don't know what to think, but this is nothing that worries me. It's a very common story, it's nothing exciting. I tell you, maybe she is a little scared because of her age, but I'm not scared because I can support her, and I accept the law."

Unintended Consequences

The full repercussions of welfare reform, in immigrant and citizen communities alike, will likely blossom slowly like a massive black lotus. While some lawmakers may have intended to deter future immigration to the U.S., many immigrant advocates say that the lawmakers' intentions grew out of incorrect information about the role of immigrants in the national economy. If recent studies hold true, slackening immigration could bode very ill for the health of the American marketplace, which benefits immensely from the influx of foreign labor and investment. On a smaller scale, however, Dunkelberg and her colleagues predict a "huge impact to community merchants" as the millions of dollars which had infused welfare-supported communities with purchasing power is cut off. Without the economic foundation provided by government subsidies, tight-knit immigrant communities are sure to unravel.

But perhaps most Americans -- fed on a diet of media tidbits that play up the instances of welfare fraud by immigrants -- are ready to allow their deterioration. "A big scandal I read about (was these) classes being taught in Taiwan about how to get on SSI," relates DHS's Patterson. "There are these people that... push it too far, and then there's the backlash and innocent people, so to speak, get caught up in it."

It's those "innocent" people, whose drain on the U.S. economy is but a teardrop in the bucket, who are the victims of what columnist Molly Ivins calls "welfare deform." Patterson concedes that "Everything the government does is full of unintended consequences," adding that, in her personal opinion, the reforms are not about budgetary decisions at all, but moral ones. "I don't believe that the bottom of all of this is stopping public assistance. At the bottom is a stereotype that these people are ignorant and lazy and just don't want to do work, and somehow that's un-American."

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