Desperately Seeking Citizenship

With the advent of new federal welfare rules for elderly immigrants, S.F.'s oldest and poorest are running out of time

Back in Tuan Van Dang's classroom in the Tenderloin, Sui Tran explains the frustration: "I can't even remember one or two words. When I try to remember things, my head hurts," she says in Cantonese, tapping a finger to her forehead. "It's very stressful."

Van Dang has been teaching the same eight questions for six weeks. The class often takes as much as two hours to master one word. "By the time they figure out the answer, they've forgotten the question," he says.

Since welfare reform passed last summer, nonprofits have been adding programs and classes (see "Nonprofits Put to the Test," Page 14). But the city, for its part, has had more talk than action to date.

San Francisco still has no concrete program in place to cope with the impact of the new welfare rules. The mayor's 154-member Welfare Reform Task Force, which includes a special Immigration Committee staffed by the Commission on the Aging, began meeting in October. A final report is expected in May -- three months before the new rules kick in.

The city's most decisive action so far has been to apply for money from the Emma Lazarus Fund, the $50 million nationwide pool that businessman George Soros established to offset the negative impact of welfare reform on noncitizens. That would pay for a citywide naturalization program, expanding existing services at community nonprofits. The Commission on the Aging's David Ishida says the application has been approved, but a final dollar amount won't be determined until the end of this month. He says the city is hoping for around $3 million.

Still, immigrant advocates say the city has been short-sighted and slow to respond. "If San Francisco had expanded actual services just a few months earlier, we could have saved federal aid to thousands of elderly and disabled immigrants who are qualified to become citizens," says Gen Fujioka, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. "Naturalizing SSI recipients is what makes sense for San Francisco. We're all going to pay if this program to naturalize fails."

The numbers are significant. As many as 13,000 newly disqualified SSI recipients could join S.F.'s welfare rolls starting in August, according to the city's Department of Human Services. The increased caseload is likely to cost the city more than $30 million for fiscal year 1997-98. The new population is expected to remain on GA for several years, because they can't move off welfare to work.

Proponents of welfare reform argue that the new rules will force families to take financial responsibility for their elderly. Immigrant advocates respond that most families who can afford to help are already doing so. Census figures show that 60 percent of the city's legal immigrants live alone. GA will be the only recourse for many.

President Clinton's 1997-98 budget proposal asks Congress to restore $21 billion in SSI benefits for legal immigrants who became disabled after entering the United States. But that does nothing for the able-bodied elderly, who make up nearly two-thirds of S.F.'s legal immigrant population on SSI. And despite these encouraging noises, the law remains unamended, its damage unmitigated.

At North of Market, Tuan Van Dang's class is nearly over. He has placed a half-dozen slips of paper on the coffee table, each printed with phrases from the INS list of 100 questions. He tells his students he will ask a question in English, and they are to pick up the papers printed with those words.

"How many states in the union?" he asks Hao Yiang, a wiry 75-year-old woman dressed in black, with slicked-back hair. Yiang picks up the paper with "how many" on it.

"See-tate, see-tate," Yiang says softly, as she looks at the slips of paper. All six students scan the table for the missing word.

A timid voice pipes up in Cantonese: "It's not there. There's no 'states,' right?" asks a tiny white-haired woman with smooth skin and delicate hands. Six sets of eyes look up at Van Dang.

"Right," he says with a sigh of relief. The teacher is pleased. Only 99 questions to go.

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