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Complete NY Times Article:  http://www.libertynet.org/edcivic/immigran.html

Excerpt from Complete Article:

Rio Grande Valley's Poor Immigrants

Worry About Welfare Law


  • McALLEN, Texas -- Here on the Texas-Mexico border, officials have long had an emergency plan for the occasional hurricane that rampages through this tropical stretch of the Rio Grande Valley. But now they need an emergency response to another disturbance that is bearing down on this area and others across the country: the new federal welfare legislation.

    In poverty-plagued Hidalgo County, one of every 12 to 15 people -- county and state officials are still trying to reconcile their figures -- is a legal immigrant who stands to lose food stamps next year under the welfare overhaul signed by President Clinton on Aug. 22. The law aims to save $55 billion in federal spending over the next six years, in large part by cutting benefits to legal residents who are not U.S. citizens.

    In sheer numbers, places like El Paso, Houston and New York have more legal immigrants facing welfare cuts. But measured proportionally, Census Bureau statistics indicate that no area in the country would be harder hit by the new law's cuts on immigrant benefits than this part of the border.

    And the new law is causing anxiety for thousands of people here and threatening to drain millions of dollars from a county that is already one of the poorest in the United States.

    And while the general intent of the law is to prod more people into work, local officials and people who work in relief agencies in Hidalgo County doubt that it will produce the intended effect here because the unemployment rate is 18.6 percent, more than three times the state and national averages.

    All told, more than 32,000 legal immigrants will stop receiving food stamps by next summer under the new welfare law. Combined with a smaller number of elderly and disabled people who stand to lose Supplemental Security Income benefits, the county expects an overall loss of $18 million to $31 million annually.

    "That is simply a huge amount to this economy," said Paul M. Vazaldua Jr., the official in charge of coordinating a response to the changes in welfare policy. So far that response has mainly consisted of drafting pleas to President Clinton and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "We are getting hammered," Vazaldua said.

    Clinton has said repeatedly that he signed the welfare measure despite grave reservations about the severity of cuts it imposes on legal immigrants, who in many cases have lived in the United States for years and paid taxes. Many are awaiting citizenship.

    And though the president has pledged to try to soften the cuts if he is re-elected, they are a major part of the budget savings under the new law, and it is unclear whether he could succeed in getting Congress to go along with any changes.

    Bush said last week that he is opposed to plans to cut off benefits for elderly and disabled legal immigrants.

    "We ought to take care of these people in the state of Texas," he said. But he has not yet formally proposed a way to do so.

    Still, as a general rule, the immediate impact of the new law is less crisis than confusion. The law gives the state up to one year to go through a complicated process of "recertifying" legal immigrants and determining whether there are mitigating factors -- like a disability or long work history -- that could allow them to keep their benefits.

    So people here wait to see what will happen. Some of those most directly affected by the cuts seem to be almost fatalistic about them. Between the cuts being imposed by faraway Washington and the ripple effects felt along the border of problems in the Mexican economy, there is a widespread feeling here that the Rio Grande Valley is under siege.

    "We're on quicksand between two countries here," said Ruben Cavazos Sr., the owner of Ruben's Grocery, a market that has been something of an institution for more than 20 years in a poor neighborhood in South McAllen. More than half the customers routinely buy their groceries there with food stamps.

    "We've been here for a long time, and our customers are loyal," said Cavazos' son, Ruben Jr., a manager at the store. He said he, his parents and a brother who also helps run the store are deeply worried about the effect of the cuts on both their customers and the family business.

    "And you think, well, people will always have to eat," he continued. "That seems like a basic thing. But what if they simply have no way to pay for their food?"

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