Marchers protest coming cuts in federal aid
March 9, 1997
From Correspondent Jim Hill
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- About 1,000 people marched through downtown Los Angeles Sunday to protest the new Federal Welfare Reform Act, which will cut off disability benefits to as many as 500,000 of the 803,000 non-citizens now receiving federal assistance.
Community leaders, immigrants' rights groups and immigrants to be directly affected got involved in the march, which organizers said would call attention to the act's devastating effects.
The welfare reform law was signed last year by President Clinton. It also affects nearly a million low-income elderly and disabled legal immigrants, who will lose their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits this fall.
The law has been embraced as an end to the cycle of government dependency.
But Riva Gutman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union, disagreed. She and her 84-year-old husband fled religious persecution in the Soviet Union, and now lives off SSI in Los Angeles. "It's not like the government owes us something, but we are here," she said. "What can I do?
Without a command of English and too elderly to start a new career, many legal immigrants fear they will lose the SSI checks. Under the Welfare Reform Act, elderly and disabled immigrants will lose the benefits if they don't become U.S. citizens.
The requirement is difficult for many to fulfill. "For those who came in their 60s, 70s, 80s, learning English and learning the civics fast really has become a formidable task," said Mairiam Prumhess of the Jewish Federation Council.
Sakhoeun Mom is disabled; she suffered permanent injuries at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in her native Cambodia. She now lives in Long Beach, California, with her five children. She, too, is afraid she will lose her SSI and food stamps under the act.
Her story is typical of the people that Sovann Tith, of the United Cambodian Community, is fighting to help. "The people I'm talking about have no capacity or are too much traumatized to work, and unable to overcome their past experience," Tith said.
Supporters of the reform act say the United States should use its resources to help only its own citizens. Congressman Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican, says legal immigrants who cannot support themselves should be sent home.
"It certainly is cheaper for us to provide airplane tickets for people who can't make it here than it is for us to take care of them as welfare recipients or as SSI recipients or as food stamp consumers for the rest of their lives," he said.
A move to deport immigrants might save money, say supporters of the immigrants, but it isn't the right way to cut costs. Immigrants who can't pass the citizenship test say they will become homeless without SSI benefits.
It is estimated that nearly 1 million people could lose their SSI benefits and food stamps this fall because of the reforms. The impact could be especially heavy in California, which is home to 40 percent of the legal immigrants in the United States.
The reform act envisions each state creating programs to support their own immigrants. Currently, no state has such a program in place.
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