Bush Wants to Restore Food Stamps Benefits to Aliens

The Bush administration, seeking to reverse part of the 1996 welfare overhaul, on Wednesday proposed to restore food stamp benefits to 363,000 legal immigrants who have lived in the country for at least five years.

Under current rules, adult immigrants must have worked in the country for at least 10 years or be a refugee or member of the military to qualify for benefits. There is no work requirement in the White House proposal, which will be part of President Bush's 2003 budget.

A senior administration official who described the proposal on condition of anonymity said the change would go a long way toward meeting the needs of a number of children and adults.

The Senate is considering revisions in farm and nutrition programs that would lower the existing work requirement for immigrants from 10 years to four years.

Congressional Republicans have argued that a work or residency requirement is necessary to keep people from moving to the United States to take advantage of the welfare system.

The administration's plan would cost $2.1 billion over 10 years. The White House has not said how it would pay for the proposal. The food-stamp program costs about $17 billion annually.

Food stamp rolls fell from 25.5 million in 1996, when Congress overhauled the welfare system, to below 17 million early last year. By October, the number swelled to 18.4 million.

An estimated 800,000 to 900,000 immigrants were removed from the rolls in 1996. Two years later, benefits were restored to 200,000 children and senior citizens who were in the country prior to enactment of the welfare law.

Administration officials "putting this as one of their priorities is something we have to find welcoming," said Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center, a group that advocates full restoration of food stamps to immigrants.