During the Congressional debate about reforming welfare in 1996, a new villainous image emerged to supplement that of the former welfare queen. This image was of an elderly Chinese immigrant undeservedly getting Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This foreign-looking senior citizen should be supported by his or her middle-class children and not by the U.S. Treasury, the image implied.

Thus was born a new kind of welfare cheat. And that image helped propel the most significant change in social legislation in decades. It was no surprise, then, that welfare reform disproportionately hurt one of the most vulnerable and least powerful groups in our country—needy legal immigrants, including many from Asia.

The mainstream press helped perpetuate this fresh symbol of welfare fraud because, according to journalistic convention, it reports what politicians say. And some politicians were either fed up with real and perceived welfare cheats or spotted a winning issue with virtually no downside—non-citizens ripping off our tax dollars. For the most part, the U.S. news organizations played along.

That some Asian-Americans abused the old welfare system is a given. Everybody did. But did they earn the ignominy of bearing an unfair brunt of Congressional wrath? Hardly. Yet, when political and media frenzies reach fever pitches over something like anti-immigrant sentiment, it can be too much for rational voices to overcome. The press either was too impotent, too remote from the issues, or decided to do very little to put into proper perspective the matter of whether elderly Chinese immigrants, for example, are stealing from U.S. taxpayers.

In fact, there are many needy old Asian immigrants who depend on meager SSI monthly payments to survive, but the combination of conservative political voices and compliant press reports muted the broader reality. As a result, many Asian newcomers who are legally entering this country were frightened and confused—and a few even killed themselves—over whether they could depend on the government safety net to provide for shelter and food.

Ironically, this demonizing of old Chinese immigrants was a new twist on press coverage of Asian-Americans. Historically, people of Asian descent have either been ignored by mainstream press coverage or have been targets of hostility. In the post-war era, press coverage of Asian-Americans has improved, in part because more Asian-Americans (albeit still a small percentage) are mainstream journalists. But a goodly number of stories about Asian-Americans still fall into two major categories: a “model minority” who excels in academics and business or bad guys who are either gangsters or nowadays influence-peddling political contributors and spies for China. The old SSI-dependent Chinese immigrant falls into the latter category.

Immigrant advocates fought back after passage of the 1996 welfare reform act. They worked to “massage” the press and politicians by countering the cheating-immigrant caricatures with stories about genuinely desperate old people fearing for their lives. A few articles were published about some of these legal immigrants committing suicide because they had nowhere else to turn. These real-life portraits swayed enough lawmakers to restore some public assistance benefits to legal immigrants in 1997. But the fear and confusion spawned by the 1996 battle to “end welfare as we know it” (in Clinton’s immortal words) remains, according to immigrant advocates.

Let us stipulate that reforming the network of federal public assistance programs is an extraordinarily complex undertaking and that disseminating clear, factual and accurate information about this fundamental transformation in social policy is a Herculean task for both government bureaucrats and journalists. Additionally, reporting on welfare reform swims against the awesome tide of a cultural change in journalism.

Many newsrooms in recent years have been experiencing marketplace pressures for presenting a different mix of news that can mean devoting resources to chasing more sexy, sensational stories. After all, the competition for readers and viewers has grown intensely fierce. Thus many news organizations tend to ignore or downplay dull but important sagas like the impact of welfare reform on people who aren’t likely to be prime targets of media advertisers and who aren’t among a newspaper’s most fervent readers or a TV station’s most loyal viewers.

Compounding the problem in terms of coverage of Asian-Americans and welfare reform is the issue of language. The great immigration waves of the last third of this century have largely been from Latin America and Asia. Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Khmer, Tagalog and other Asian languages and dialects—to say nothing of a little Farsi, Russian and other European and Middle Eastern languages—are the first languages of millions who have immigrated to America for economic and political reasons. This multiplicity of languages, and the underlying cultural differences, confounds, baffles, frustrates, irritates and enrages some English-speaking Americans and makes the job of reporting on their circumstances that much more challenging.

Many immigrant advocates are now turning to the small, burgeoning news media in these immigrant communities rather than relying on coverage by the mainstream English-language press. In getting the word out about welfare reform to their constituents, Victor Hwang, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, said he and his colleagues don’t devote much time to interacting with the English-language mainstream news media. His organization instead turns to the ethnic media, but even their readership is limited to middle class immigrants, Hwang contends. The Asian Law Caucus bypasses the media and instead focuses its energies on arranging numerous face to face community meetings to educate low-income Asian immigrants about welfare reform.

Karin Wang, a staff attorney and Director of the Immigrant Welfare Project of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles, said her organization has also concentrated on using the ethnic media because potential clients don’t read mainstream newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times. She noted, however, that some Asian immigrants, such as Cambodians and other Southeast Asians, are harder to reach through even the ethnic press because publications that serve them are not as well developed as Chinese-language newspapers and TV stations.

The big untold story is how English-deficient needy immigrants will fare under the new welfare-to-work rules in which the prime objective is to move recipients off of public assistance and into the labor market as quickly as possible. Many Asian immigrants are not proficient enough in English to take advantage of the training programs that are conducted only in English. They also are disadvantaged in seeking, then securing, jobs that require a high degree of English proficiency.

Overall, the plight of non-English-speaking Asian immigrants who are dependent on public assistance may not be a story of highest priority to a celebrity-hungry news media. But given the heavy hit that legal immigrants absorbed during the debate about reforming welfare, it would only be fitting to chronicle in depth and in a balanced context the continuing obstacles they face.

William Wong is a freelance columnist with The San Francisco Examiner and a former regional commentator on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

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