SILVER SPRING – Rahel Saifu said it over and over during the two-hour interview: She doesn’t want a handout, she wants a job.
“If I had a job, I wouldn’t need food stamps. If I got a job, I could live in a real house,” the Ethiopian immigrant said.
Saifu, 25, may not be getting a handout much longer, and not because she’ll finally be working. A House committee Wednesday approved a bill that would deny food stamp benefits to legal immigrants who are not citizens. The House has not yet scheduled a vote.
“This is long overdue. It’s been the U.S. policy since the turn of the century that immigrants aren’t supposed to come into this country unless they can support themselves,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit group that supports limiting immigration.
In fiscal year 1993, more than 16,000 immigrants who entered the United States said they intended to live in Maryland, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services.
But not all immigrants go on welfare, said Helen Szablya, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
Although the department has no hard data, it estimates the number of immigrants receiving welfare and the number of citizens receiving welfare is proportionately equal, she said.
It’s not the only similarity between legal immigrants and citizens, according to the INS.
“Legal immigrants do everything that a U.S. citizen does. They just don’t have the right to vote,” said Elaine Komis, an INS public affairs officer. “They have all the other rights and responsibilities.”
Paying taxes is one of these responsibilities, she said.
But paying taxes is not enough, according to some experts who support the committee’s move to limit food stamps.
“Is welfare just a program that if you pay something into it, you should get something out? Or is it more a moral issue that we, as Americans, are extending aid to our own people who have fallen on hard times?” said Mark Crikorian, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies.
“There’s a case for saying we need to take care of our own,” he said. “You’re not an American until you become a citizen.”
Saifu said she feels welcome here, and at home. She intends to become a citizen “as soon as I can pass the exam.”
She said her family pays taxes.
Her husband, Getachew Saifu, 34, works more than 40 hours a week at a nearby 7-11, usually at night.
Saifu said she wants to work, too. She is in constant contact with Refugee Employment Services in Prince George’s County, officials there say.
She said she’s been having trouble finding placement because she has no job history and poor English skills.
While she waits for a placement, she takes an English class twice a week at Wheaton Library and plays with her two children.
“I really want a job. If I had a job in the morning, my husband could watch the babies while I worked. If I had a job, it would be OK,” she said.
In the meantime, the family of four receives $211 a month in food stamps, she said.
Instead of seeing immigrants as taking away from the country, they should be seen as contributors, said Linda Eisenberg, director of the nonprofit Maryland Food Committee.
“If people don’t have enough to eat, they’re going to be hard-pressed to contribute socially, economically and to their own family stability,” she said.
Saifu said she came here to escape the poverty in Ethiopia and make a new life for herself. “There was no food, no money.”
The oldest of seven children, she was sent to live in Potomac, Md., with an aunt in 1990. Before she left, however, her parents arranged her marriage to Getachew Saifu.
“Just in case something happened [to them], they wanted to make sure I was OK,” she said. “He would take care of me.”
The plan, Saifu said, was for her husband to follow her as soon as he could arrange to leave the country. It took him nearly two years.
“It was not easy, and very expensive,” she said. “Also, he did not want to leave his family. He had no family here.”
When her husband finally arrived, he was surprised to find Saifu had a daughter that wasn’t his. The child’s father still occasionally visits, Saifu said.
“He was mad,” she said of her husband. “He threw me out, and the baby and I had to go to a shelter for one week.”
Then, Saifu said, the two reconciled because he was lonely. One year later, they had a son, Robel. He is 1. The daughter, Yada, is 4.
If Saifu’s food stamp benefits are cut, her children, born here, will continue to receive aid. They are U.S. citizens.
If the House bill passes, Saifu’s benefits would be eliminated after a one-year grace period.
“I think it’s obvious that if benefits go only to children, everyone in the family is going to suffer,” Eisenberg said.
Saifu cannot afford to bring her father, mother, two brothers and four sisters from Ethiopia. But she worries about them constantly, she said.
Without food stamps, Saifu said her American family will also suffer.
“If I could get a job, it would all be OK,” she said.