Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that Maryland would pick up the tab to continue providing welfare and other benefits to legal immigrants who would have been cut off under the new federal welfare reform law.
Branding the controversial federal provision "totally unacceptable," the governor said the state would cover the expense by diverting savings already being achieved in its welfare programs. It will cost about $9 million a year to continue the benefits, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children, nutrition assistance and prenatal and early child care.
"In Maryland, we will take care of our children and the families of our children," Glendening said in Silver Spring as he bounced 3-year-old Orlando Lima, the son of Cuban immigrants, on his knee.
With Glendening's announcement, Maryland becomes one of the first states to guarantee that immigrants will continue to receive assistance when the law goes into effect Oct. 1.
"Maryland is really at the forefront of the pack in deciding on this issue," said Amy Tucci, a spokesman for the American Public Welfare Association.
It was a measure of the political appeal of the announcement that the governor made it twice yesterday -- once in Montgomery County and later in Baltimore. The governor underscored his stand by attending a naturalization ceremony for 292 new citizens in Silver Spring.
The bar on the use of federal funds to provide many social benefits to legal immigrants was included in the comprehensive welfare reform bill signed by President Clinton last month.
At the time, Clinton said he objected to that provision, which was included at the insistence of House Republicans.
The president said he would sign the bill anyway because it included many provisions he did support, including limits on the time recipients can spend on welfare before they have to find work. He said he would seek a repeal of the immigration provision in the next Congress.
According to the governor's office, the law would have cut off cash assistance to 2,155 legal immigrants in Maryland, two-thirds of them children.
While continuing some benefits, Glendening said, the state cannot afford to pick up the nearly $10 million cost of replacing food stamps for more than 10,000 legal immigrants who receive them in Maryland.
However, he said the state would spend about $2.2 million to subsidize food stamps for 2,217 immigrant children.
The state also will continue to provide medical assistance benefits to children, he said.
Glendening's announcement drew praise from local officials and advocates for immigrants, cautious support from legislative leaders and equivocal statements from normally outspoken Republicans.
Pat Hatch, director of advocacy for the Foreign-born Information Referral Network in Columbia, said the Democratic governor's action showed his concern for children's welfare.
"Most of the people that we serve do everything they can to avoid applying for benefits. They want very much to be self-sustaining," she said.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat who is often at odds with Glendening, said he had not been informed of the move but supported it.
"That's the right decision for him to make because it was the wrong decision for Congress to make," said Taylor. "If an immigrant is legally here, then that immigrant deserves the same protection as anybody else here."
Comments from conservatives seemed to reflect a growing sense of unease with the stance of House Republicans in Washington on legal immigration.
Even the 1994 GOP gubernatorial nominee, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, normally a staunch backer of conservative causes, emphasized her belief that there's a big difference between legal and illegal immigration.
"For me, it would be premature to make a statement. Maybe the governor has a good handle on this," Sauerbrey said. She added that she would not want to see the state make "a blanket statement that we're going to pick up everything."
Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican, voiced a concern that was shared by Taylor and state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. "If this is something we do and other states don't do it, we could become a magnet" for immigrants cut off by other states. But he, too, declined to come out in opposition to the move.
While the decision is consistent with Glendening's record, it could also prove to be a political plus in mending his shaky relations with fellow Democrats.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had lobbied the governor at the Democratic National Convention to take the action. And Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said the move would help his county, which has the largest immigrant population in the state.
But at the same time the governor was announcing an apparently popular policy, he once again did it in a way that raised hackles among potential allies.
Duncan, who recently raised Glendening's ire by participating in a meeting of his critics, expressed regret that he was not invited to the governor's announcement in Silver Spring. "I guess he's still mad at me for going to the dinner meeting," Duncan said.
Senate President Miller said that while he supported the governor's decision, he wished the governor had consulted legislative leaders before making the announcement.
Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for the governor, said Duncan had been invited Friday through his press office. He added that the administration expects to provide a full briefing to lawmakers at a legislative hearing today.
Pub Date: 9/17/96