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Published on Sunday, April 2, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Trying to Return Health Care And Food to Legal Immigrants
by Louis Freedberg
YOU WOULD HAVE thought that President Clinton had a gun pointed to his head when he signed legislation three years ago ``to end welfare as we know it.''

At an elaborate White House ceremony on Aug. 22, 1996, he said he would sign the bill (euphemistically called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act) even though he was ``deeply disappointed'' that it would strip legal immigrants and their children from a range of federally funded benefits, including food stamps and Medicaid.

``Legal immigrants and their children should not be penalized if they become disabled and require medical assistance through no fault of their own,'' he declared. ``Neither should they be deprived of food stamp assistance without proper procedures or due regard for individual circumstances.''

The law signalled a radical departure from our nation's historic treatment of legal immigrants. Until the welfare law went into effect, legal immigrants, who pay taxes like any other American, were eligible for virtually all benefits.

Even as he was signing the bill, Clinton vowed to try to reverse some of the provisions he found most egregious. ``I am determined to work with Congress in a biparisan effort to correct the provisions of this legislation that go too far and have nothing to do with welfare reform,'' he declared.

But he failed to take into account multiple obstacles, including the U.S. Supreme Court. This week, the court refused to hear an appeal by Chicago city officials and a group of legal immigrants who said that denying them benefits violated their constitutional rights. Chicago had already lost in two lower courts, which had ruled that the United States is not required to give non-citizens the same welfare benefits as citizens.

The Supreme Court's decision -- or more accurately, its lack of one -- will provide a cover for legislators who will be able to cite the court's inaction to justify doing nothing to restore benefits to legal immigrants.

Two years ago, immigrant advocates launched a ``Fix '96'' campaign to restore some of the excised benefits. So far, the campaign has yielded some successes. For example, Congress has restored food stamps and Supplemental Security Income to disabled and elderly low-income immigrants who came to the United States before August 1996.

But the basic architecture of the bill remains untouched. Still left out in the cold are all new immigrants (other than refugees) who arrived in the United States after the law went into effect.

Over the past three years, nearly 60,000 new immigrants have settled annually in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco alone. Increasingly, local and state authorities have been left with the burden of picking up what was once a federal responsibility.

Just because the Supreme Court has refused to weigh in on the subject, Congress should not be let off the hook. Congress now has an opportunity to correct the problem in two ways.

It can vote to approve legislation sponsored by Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y. and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., which would allow states to provide health coverage to legal immigrant children and pregnant women, and to restore Social Security disability benefits to elderly immigrants even if they came here after 1996

--but only if they become disabled after they get here.

Or Congress could approve proposals contained in President Clinton's 2001 budget, which includes $2.5 billion over the next five years to do much of what the Moynihan- Levin bill will accomplish.

But the larger lesson is one that ought to be obvious to every third- grader: once a president signs a bill, it becomes the law of the land. As Clinton has discovered, it is far easier to sign something into law than to remove it from the books later on. The time to protest would have been before he signed the bill, not afterward.

It is now likely that he will leave the White House with the 1996 bill largely intact. To each new immigrant, his words of protest on that muggy summer's day 3 1/2 years ago will sound increasingly hollow.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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