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Erie County welfare administrators are paying $65,000 to try to help 587 legal immigrants become citizens so they can resume receiving monthly food stamp allocations.

The immigrants live on an average of $556 a month in Supplemental Security Income. The federal government has cut them off from the $62 a month they had been receiving in food stamps.

County officials are reluctant to pay the $312,888 -- or 50 percent of the cost of providing the food stamps. County officials say this might put the county on a risky path.

"It's a dangerous precedent to start," Deputy Social Services Director Joan Guarino said. "We're afraid this might be the first wave of shifting the cost of funding onto the local governments."

So to avoid setting a precedent, the Social Services Department is trying to help the 567 legal residents to prepare to pass the U.S. citizenship test. The county will pay the International Institute up to $65,000 to do the job.

If they become citizens, the adult immigrants could again receive the $62 in food stamps.

But it's not going to happen quickly.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials said Friday that it usually takes a year from application to oath of citizenship. And that is if everything goes well.

The INS can offer "expeditious processing" for applicants affected by welfare reform which could shorten the process by a couple of months.

Most of the 587 disabled and elderly immigrants are not eligible for special exemptions available to longtime permanent residents after age 50.

They have not been classified as permanent residents long enough, said Barbara Rice, administrative manager of International Institute.

So to qualify for citizenship, they will probably have to show INS a working knowledge of English and answer questions on American government.

Ms. Rice said four immigrants say they have already taken the test, and 104 have applied.

Ms. Rice estimates that 5 percent of the 567 are now in nursing homes where attempts will be made to bring them into citizenship.

Karen Eckert, INS deputy assistant director, said immigrants in nursing homes frequently apply for citizenship and some are eligible for waivers to ease the process.

The question of participating in the food stamp program at an estimated cost of $312,888 annually has never gone before the County Legislature.

"I think the Legislature should have been consulted before the Social Services Department decided not to provide food stamps," Legislator Gregory B. Olma, D-Buffalo, said.

George Holt, D-Buffalo, said he wants to put the food stamp money into the 1997 county budget.

Deborah Collins, administrative consultant of social services, said the department had short notice from the state Temporary Assistance and Disability Assistance Office and only an eight-day window to decide on food stamp participation.

"We do have a responsibility to local taxpayers as well," she said.

Immigrants who are 60 or older may be referred to the 51 communal senior dining facilities under the umbrella of the county Senior Services Department.

Enrollment in congregate dining has not increased from its steady rate of just under 10,000, said Susan O'Day, assistant director of nutrition program for the elderly.

"It usually takes a month or two for information on new registrants to get back," she said.

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