Legislation would restore food stamps for legal immigrants

Wednesday, November 3, 1999

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants cut from the food stamps rolls under congressional welfare reforms could be eligible for benefits again under legislation proposed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

The Hunger Relief Act of 2000, sponsored by Rep. James Walsh, R-Syracuse, would take yet another step toward softening Congress' sweeping 1996 welfare reforms, especially parts of the bill dealing with immigrants. The legislation is sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

Walsh, who said he developed an interest in hunger issues while spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, expects Congress to take up the legislation next year.

A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that in 1998, 6.6 million adults and 3.3 million children experience hunger, with the highest rates in households led by single women and minorities. An Urban Institute Study of former welfare recipients found that 33 percent have to skip meals.

Walsh's legislation would again base food stamp eligibility on need. In 1996, Congress eliminated food stamps for most legal immigrants as part of its overhaul of the nation's welfare system. It struck 935,000 legal immigrants from the food stamp rolls. About 150,000 legal immigrants in New York were affected, state officials said Tuesday.

Some states, including New York, continued to provide food stamps for certain legal immigrants, mostly the elderly, children, and the disabled. But even so, hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants stopped receiving the food subsidies.

In 1998, Congress restored benefits for legal immigrants who were disabled, over age 65 and under age 18, as long as they were in the United States legally before enactment of the 1996 welfare changes. The change restored benefits for about one-third of those cut from food stamp rolls.

The Walsh bill would extend eligibility to again cover all legal immigrants who meet food stamp income eligibility, something a broad coalition of immigration and anti-hunger groups have been seeking.

"It's what we've been working for, a full restoration," Josh Bernstein, a policy analyst with the National Immigration Law Center, said.

Bernstein said he was optimistic about the legislation's chances because anti-immigrant sentiment that was sweeping the nation when the 1996 changes were enacted has largely evaporated.

And Ellen Vollinger, of the Food Research and Action Center, said that a flood of legal immigrants seeking food at shelters and pantries since the food stamps were eliminated, has prompted a backlash of public opinion against the cuts.

The proposed legislation would also:

  • allow more flexibility for food stamp recipients with cars. Currently, food stamp benefits are reduced for families who own a car worth more than $4,650. The bill would allow states to set their own levels, reasoning that low-income parents need vehicles to get to a job.

  • allow more people to qualify by raising the cap on allowable housing expenses from $275 to $320 monthly. The provision is aimed at lower-income families in urban areas with high rents, like New York City.

  • authorize an additional $100 million over five years for food banks, a 10 percent increase.

  • The legislation is being cosponsored in the House of Representatives by fellow New York Rep. Sue Kelly, R-Westchester County.

    Copyright © 1999 Bergen Record Corp.