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Restoring Immigrant Rights

Health coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income, disabled and elderly legal immigrants was rendered ineligible by a Republican-crafted welfare law. The coverage would be restored under legislation introduced Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., and Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., would also extend federal food-stamp eligibility to able-bodied adult noncitizens who were in the country as of the August 1996 enactment of the welfare law.

Congress has moved twice to soften the blow of the 1996 law, which hit legal immigrants especially hard. Legislators are being asked to act again to assist impoverished noncitizens squeezed by Washington's policy shifts.

The broad coalition of anti-hunger, health care, and immigrant advocacy organizations that lobbied successfully for restoration of disability benefits and food stamps for certain legal immigrants is rallying behind the Moynihan-Levin measure.

"It makes no sense to withdraw these benefits from needy people," Levin said in an interview Tuesday.

Having urged President Clinton to sign the 1996 welfare bill, which was reviled by traditional Democratic constituencies, Levin said he considers it his "solemn obligation" to rectify what he views as unduly harsh aspects of the law.

Keenly aware of complaints by some Republicans that earlier benefit restorations represented a wholesale rollback of the welfare law, Levin said his measure would make changes in "a very pinpointed way."

Two years ago, Congress reversed itself and allowed hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants who were in the country at the time Clinton signed the welfare bill to retain their Supplemental Security Income payments. Last year, lawmakers restored food-stamp eligibility for elderly, disabled and minor noncitizens, covering 250,000 of the 935,000 legal immigrants who had lost their benefits.

Immigrant advocates, who prevailed before by dispatching a steady stream of elderly and frail immigrants to Capitol Hill to relate how they were harmed by the welfare policy changes, are hopeful that they'll succeed again.

"Congress became more aware of how these changes were impacting families and communities," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group. "We have every reason to think if we can make the same compelling arguments, hopefully they would be open to responding."

Levin is counting on FRAC and others in the coalition to provide the lobbying muscle. "The support groups are going to whip into action, and they've been exceptionally successful before," he said.

The costs of the Moynihan-Levin bill have yet to be fully assessed, but Levin gave a rough estimate of $2.7 billion over five years. The legislation goes well beyond a proposed restoration package sought by the Clinton administration.

Unlike the earlier measures, whic benefited only legal immigrants who were in the country before the welfare law's enactment, the new legislation would provide health care benefits to post-1996 newcomers.

By Michelle Mittelstadt

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