By Judy Holland
The San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON, May 12, 2002 When Republicans captured the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, their rallying cry was the 10-point “Contract with America,” which included deep cuts in welfare benefits for legal immigrants.
They proceeded to push through the landmark 1996 welfare reform law signed by then-President Bill Clinton that stripped most legal immigrants of such benefits as food stamps, cash assistance and federally subsidized health care, at least until they had been here for five years.
Now, as Congress prepares to renew the welfare law, some House Republicans are squirming because they know the political price the party paid in California for then-Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 success in winning voter approval of Proposition 187. That initiative denied schooling and other services to noncitizens in California.
In polls and focus groups conducted by the Zogby International polling firm from 1998 to 2000 in California, Latinos said they agreed with GOP positions on many issues such as school vouchers, abortion and gun control but couldn’t see themselves voting for Republicans because of Proposition 187.
That California anti-immigrant measure “was a defining moment,” said John Zogby, head of the polling firm. “Republicans don’t want to be perceived as the party of meanness, especially with Hispanics.”
TARRING LEGAL IMMIGRANTS
Bruce Reed, Clinton’s top White House domestic policy adviser and now president of the Democratic Leadership Council, said Republicans in California “tried to tar legal immigrants with the same brush as people who sneaked in over the border.” As a result, he said, California has been a solidly Democratic state ever since.
“They tried to foster anti-immigrant sentiment, and it backfired,” he said.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who led a drive that restored some of the axed immigrant benefits in 1997, said Congress “should have never gotten into that legal immigrant debate. It was a tremendous mistake.”
“This is a lose-lose situation for Republicans,” Diaz-Balart said. “The people who continue to separate and distinguish legal immigrants from citizens play into the hands of those who demagogue this issue.”
He said Democrats are trying to turn Latino voters away from the GOP, adding, “What the Democrats are trying to do is California-ize this country.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said her fellow House Republicans went much too far in 1996 in cutting benefits because of a “heavy anti-immigrant feeling” at the time.
Ros-Lehtinen, whose family came to this country from Cuba when she was 7 and received welfare, said she wants to restore more of the benefits that were scratched six years ago.
“The term welfare has gotten a bad name,” she said. “As a former recipient of welfare myself, it really is a helping hand.”
‘SUCKING OFF RESOURCES’
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, who opposes restoring any benefits, warned against letting people come here “who will be sucking off resources and taking benefits away from citizens.” But he said Republicans are looking to offer immigrants more because they are “scared of being called names.”
“Republicans are afraid they are going to be called mean or hard-hearted,” Rohrabacher said.
Some Republicans are looking for a compromise. House and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters that President Bush would not object to welfare legislation that gives states the option of using their federal money to help poor immigrant families. Thompson said he has no philosophical objection to lifting the ban on immigrant benefits.
In the years since the 1996 welfare reform law was enacted, Congress has gradually revived about half of these benefits, mostly for children, older and disabled people and abused women.
Bush, who as Texas governor opposed the 1996 cutbacks in immigrant welfare benefits, has made a gesture to Latinos by promising to sign a farm bill that would give food stamps to legal immigrants who have been here five years.
Democrats, saying that’s not enough, are eager to label Bush as lacking compassion.
BUSH’S ‘TERRIBLE OMISSION’
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., assailed Bush’s decision to restore food stamps but not cash assistance or health care benefits as “a terrible omission,” saying immigrants need more help to hold decent jobs.
“It’s not humane,” Lieberman said. “It’s not the American way.”
Reed, the former Clinton White House aide, says Republicans are divided over the issue of immigrant benefits as it moves through Congress.
“House Republicans still don’t like to admit it, but they have been forced to recognize that they will do themselves serious political harm if they stick to their guns on this issue,” Reed said. “It makes them very uncomfortable because the vast majority of House conservatives remain violently opposed to providing benefits to legal immigrants, but the party leadership understands that states like Florida, California and Texas hang in the balance over issues like this.”