Friday, June 6, 2008

Budget cuts could hurt disabled immigrants

HAYWARD — Rosa Castillejos had high hopes four years ago when she won a green card lottery and arrived in the East Bay from Lima, Peru.

She worked two steady jobs, one in the middle of the night. Her aging husband worked one. Their 14-year-old son entered his freshman year of high school in Hayward, beginning an American education that his parents hoped would take him far.

"I was happy," Castillejos said. "I came with great desire to work in this country."

But severe health problems came crashing down on Castillejos in summer 2005, and she began relying on a state government lifeline of several hundred dollars a month to make ends meet. That lifeline, designed specifically for disabled or aged immigrants, could be shut off for Castillejos and thousands of others as part of cutbacks that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed to narrow the state's budget gap.

Called the Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants, the money benefits about 10,400 aged, disabled or blind legal immigrants in California who do not qualify for federal Supplemental Security Income because they are not citizens. Eliminating the monthly checks would save the state $111 million, according to a revised budget that the governor presented in May.

But social service officials and advocates in the East Bay say it could be devastating for the immigrants affected and also put more of a burden on local governments to help them out. On Thursday, the budget Advertisementcommittee of the state Assembly released a 69-page counterproposal that rejected any cutbacks to the CAPI program.

More than 900 legal immigrants benefit from the state-funded program in Alameda County and more than 200 in Contra Costa County.

"It's really the most vulnerable group of people," said Stefanie Pfingstl, a manager of the Contra Costa County Workforce Services Bureau. "The impact to the clients is they are going to have less money at a time when the economy is not good."

Castillejos, 61, was tearful as she spoke of her fear of losing the government support.

Problems began for the Peruvian immigrant in the summer of 2005, when she fell off of a ladder while working a shift at a Target store in Hayward. Then, in September, she suffered a stroke and a heart attack that have contributed to a series of ongoing complications. She moves slowly and with a walker, struggling up the fourteen concrete steps to her family's one-bedroom apartment in South Hayward.

Of the $925 she gets per month from the state program, $798 of that pays the rent, she said. Her husband, 64, makes $8 an hour packaging cosmetic supplies in Oakland. Her son David, now 18, struggled through Tennyson High School but ended up graduating from a continuation school this spring.

The teen, a music aficionado who hopes to study psychology, said he helps his mother by buying the groceries, taking her to medical appointments and handling other outside chores.

"I did not come here to get help from the government," said Castillejos, who spent years working in small businesses and whose four oldest children are all professionals in Peru. "I wanted to work because I like to work. But with this illness, I can't work."

Alameda and Contra Costa county officials predict that if the cuts go through, many of those immigrants who lose the state benefits will fall under general assistance programs, which provide smaller sums but cost the counties more because they come from local budgets.

Pfingstl said the average general assistance grant is $375 a month. By comparison, the cash assistance for immigrants grant is $878 per month for individuals and $1,685 for couples in which both spouses qualify, she said. That number is still lower than the traditional federal Supplemental Security Income grant, which is only available to low-income disabled, blind or aged people who are citizens.

Pfingstl said the governor has put the immigrant assistance program on the budget table in previous years without the program actually getting axed, so was hopeful that the state Legislature would block the cut.

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