(Don't) Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor

Things could get a lot tougher for immigrants coming to Minnesota if the state Legislature and U.S. Congress have their way. Refugees who depend on public assistance--as many do for their first few years--have long been among the targets of federal requirements that in families with both parents at home, one parent participate in "community work experience" (CWEP) programs.

Now a welfare reform bill that's almost certain to be passed at the Legislature one-ups the federal requirement by demanding that both parents go through job search and free labor; this, state officials say, is supposed to help Minnesota meet its federal quota of having 60 percent of two-parent AFDC families in a work program. There's an exemption for those who can't speak English, and those with children under 6; even that, however, only applies to one of the parents.

Long Vue, an organizer with the community group ACORN, says many Hmong people have been telling him about the work they've done under the program so far; often, he says, it's manual labor, assembly-line or packing work. "You have to realize who's benefiting from this," Vue says. "It's not the people on AFDC. It's the businesses." Shirley Mertens, who works with CWEP clients in Ramsey County, says work sites include hospitals, libraries, nonprofit groups and some private firms, which she won't name. She calls the program "highly successful: Every month, there's a few who get a permanent job."

In a way, expanded workfare requirements are only the first shadow of the storm brewing over poor immigrants: They face a total cutoff from welfare under pending federal legislation, which could take effect as early as next year. Vue says the change, if passed, spells disaster for people who "never in their lifetime thought that they would have to depend on anybody. But now, when they come to this country, it seems like they cannot do anything. So they depend on the assistance to get themselves going."

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