Lawful immigrants rush to become full citizens Welfare reform threatens benefits of legal aliens

February 17, 1997|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Alicia Garza Burton of Hyattsville wasn't worried when President Clinton signed the new welfare law last year, the one that threatens benefits to Burton and other legal immigrants unless they become citizens.

A 64-year-old disabled widow who arrived here from Mexico in 1949, Burton survives on a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) check. Yet when the law was enacted, she told friends: "Let sleeping dogs lie." Sister Mary Wendeln, a Catholic nun who works with low-income Hispanics in Maryland, replied: "Honey, this dog isn't sleeping."

The most radical change in the 62-year history of U.S. welfare, the law has led to great confusion, anxiety and a noticeable rush by immigrants to apply for citizenship. At stake are SSI payments to the elderly and disabled, food stamps and Medicaid.

While Gov. Parris N. Glendening has promised to provide for some legal immigrants -- particularly children and pregnant women -- the "personal responsibility" act of 1996 presents lawful newcomers with an ultimatum: become naturalized citizens or lose your right to federal welfare.

"I have lived here most of my life, and after all these years I can't understand why they expect me to have to make [citizenship] papers now," says Burton, who has diabetes and back problems, and describes her health as "an apple full of worms."

"Why do they want to take away something when they know it is the only thing I have?" she asks. "Why do they want to put me against the wall?"

Advocates say immigrants are bearing the brunt of selfish and mean-spirited national attitudes in which all foreigners, legal or not, are lumped together as an unwanted drain on limited resources.

Says Wendeln: "It's a group of people who have been targeted for who they are, not because of something they've done wrong, and that's unjust. We've never done this before in our history."

Though the welfare law was designed to cut cash assistance to 2 million of the nation's native poor, more than 40 percent of the $53.4 billion expected to be saved will come at the expense of legal immigrants.

In his State of the Union address, Clinton said: "We must join together to do something both Republican and Democratic governors have asked us to do: restore basic health and disability benefits when misfortune strikes immigrants who came to this country legally, who work hard, pay taxes and obey the law. To do otherwise is simply unworthy of a great nation of immigrants."

In Maryland, nearly 18,000 legal immigrants receive some type of monthly check from the Social Security Administration, which administers SSI. It is expected that 6,327 of those -- many of them elderly with little or no skill in English -- may lose their benefits this year.

Bertel Williams, a 40-year-old Jamaican paraplegic, lives in Towson on a $566 monthly SSI check. He's learned most of the answers to the 150 questions that could appear on the citizenship test.

Last month, he was one of more than 500 immigrants from Caribbean islands who showed up at Baltimore City Community College for a town-hall meeting on the new law organized by state Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore County Democrat, herself a native of the Caribbean.

'No time to procrastinate'

Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman John Shallman told the crowd: "This is the law, and we urge you to become U.S. citizens. This is no time to procrastinate."

Williams said, "I didn't know until I went to the meeting that the welfare law had anything to do with my [SSI]."

The former auto mechanic came to the United States in 1980. Two years later, he was paralyzed after being shot by a stranger at a Washington nightclub. "It's real easy for some people to become citizens. For others, it's a hard thing to give up your homeland," he said.

Indeed, the oath of allegiance that immigrants take to become citizens says: "I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen "

In all, 180,000 legal and permanent aliens live in Maryland, with a little more than half eligible for citizenship. The INS estimates that in the next three years it will see about 1 million additional applications for citizenship.

In the best of circumstances, the agency estimates a six-month wait between filing for naturalization and taking the oath of allegiance as a new citizen.

This month, the Social Security Administration began sending letters to immigrants receiving SSI benefits, telling them of changes in the law. When the letters began arriving, the Baltimore office of INS saw applications increase sixfold.

Because of the expected deluge, the applications and $95 fee were being accepted last week only by mail. To apply, an immigrant needs to have lived here four years and nine months. Five years of residence are needed to take the citizenship oath.

"A higher premium has been put on U.S. citizenship than has ever existed in our history, and we are bracing for the onslaught of applications," said Shallman. A one-day high of 300 applications was received Feb. 7, he said, and the day before, 150 people showed up to fill out forms. In the past, a typical day saw about 50 applicants at most.

Gift for mother

While Alicia Burton resents the choice between citizenship and benefits, Bertel Williams is not upset at all.

Williams' citizenship will not only be a present for his mother -- a naturalized citizen who has nagged him for years to start the process -- but he believes it will "protect" him to become a true member of what he calls the greatest country in the world.

"America is still the safest place, the place with the most food to eat," he says. "There's still a lot of people here with heart."

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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