The Bill to Coerce Immigrants

April 15, 1995|By DANIEL BERGER

Hidden in the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives are provisions having nothing to do with welfare or illegal immigration.

Their effect would be to penalize past legal immigration retroactively, and pressure legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens or get out.

No particular rationale is championed. The debate over the bill ignored the immigrant dimension.

The bill passed on a party-line vote with little debate or floor action, as part of the House Republicans' ''Contract with America.'' What will become law is up to the Senate, which is expected to act by summer.

Senate Republicans are not so clear-minded as their House colleagues. Some are actually quite troubled by the bill's provisions. If the immigrant issue is to be examined, it is up to them.

The House-passed bill would render legal immigrants ineligible for temporary assistance for needy families, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, the Social Services Block Grant (supplanting welfare) and food stamps. It would not matter how many decades they had worked and paid taxes here.

Various studies have shown that half of Americans think most immigrants get welfare assistance, while in fact only about TC percent actually have, mostly the elderly and political refugees. Working-age immigrants are less likely to seek assistance than Americans born in this country.

The bill humanely excludes from its deprivations immigrants over 75 who have lived here five years, political refugees in their first five years, veterans of U.S. armed services, military personnel and their families, seasonal farm workers and immigrants unable to take the citizenship test because of disability.

This last is thanks to an amendment by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, a Cuban immigrant and conservative Republican. It protects the disabled and retarded among the Cubans who were given blanket admission by Congress.

With those most likely to seek welfare excluded, the bill's provisions aim punitively at people who are no burden to the nation. It's saying that if they ever do need a safety net, it won't be there, unless they choose to become citizens.

Since most will never seek the benefits, why are many upset? Because they see it as the opening salvo of a gratuitous, nativist, xenophobic campaign against them. It has panicked many to apply for citizenship, which was, of course, the idea.

Applications for naturalization last year were nearly double the number for 1993 and are expected to double again. This coercion aside, illegals who became legal under the 1986 amnesty are now eligible.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service did not need this extra load of work and cannot cope. It will ask Congress for more staff, to be paid for by application fees.

But why wouldn't immigrants want to become citizens? Many or most do, but it is their call.

Others forsake the right to vote from lingering loyalty to homeland, or fear of losing property or rights there. Many came for opportunity without a life commitment, some came at an emotional sacrifice as spouses and others await political or economic change back home.

Not seeking citizenship was always an option, always accepted and never harmful to the nation. All of a sudden, the government thinks it's wrong. To that end, the rules would change and the U.S. would renege on its deal with these people.

Many Americans who live abroad for jobs or retirement expect to remain U.S. citizens. They would be outraged if coerced to take the local citizenship. Yet that is what the House Republicans (and the advisory U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform) demand of others.

It is not only some immigrants who are alarmed.

The State and Local Coalition on Immigration -- representing the National Governors' Assn., the National Conference of State Legislatures, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties and the American Public Welfare Assn. -- fears that an enormous burden will be dumped on its members.

Its March newsletter, ''Immigrant Policy News . . . (Inside the Beltway),'' says that ''If states cannot deny services to legal immigrants, the elimination of federal benefits will shift massive costs to state and local assistance programs.''

That is, it would amount to an unfunded mandate, which Congress pretended to forbid.

Well, this mean-spirited measure demeaning to the nation did pass the House. Only the Senate or a presidential veto can alter or stop it now.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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