When choosing your allies for a battle against the United States government, elderly Asian-American women may not be the first people to come to mind.
Lynn Fujiwara begs to differ.
Fujiwara, a UCSD graduate and an assistant professor in women’s and gender studies and sociology at the University of Oregon, spoke Monday about her participation in efforts to restore welfare benefits that were lost to non-U.S. citizens after the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. About 20 people gathered in the women’s studies conference room to hear Fujiwara speak on the central role Asian immigrant women played in the movement against the welfare reforms, which proved successful when Congress restored all benefits in August 1997.
Following Welfare Reform in 1996, all non-U.S. citizens who could not provide proof of permanent residency and a 10-year work history in the United States lost their supplemental security income and food stamp benefits.
Supplemental security income, provided to those physically unable to work due to age or disability, is the main source of income for approximately 500,000 people; 72 percent are women and 40 percent live in California. After the cuts were announced, many families feared for their survival.
“There were families flooding Social Security agencies demanding to know what was happening to their benefits,” Fujiwara said.
Some reacted more drastically. Fujiwara said there were six reported suicides as panicked welfare recipients reacted to the possible loss of their livelihood.
“One woman left an audio tape that said, ‘If they stop giving me my grants, I will die anyway,'” she said.
Many community agencies set up suicide hotlines in multiple languages to stop the trend.
Activists first tried to change public perception of immigrants. Fujiwara said that an excessive number of Asian immigrants were being charged with welfare fraud during the legislation leading up to the cuts.
The characterization shifted when several national newspapers and magazines ran stories on Asian immigrants portraying them as hard-working people rather than criminals. Fujiwara displayed a back issue of San Francisco Weekly that featured a cover photo of an elderly Asian-American woman.
“That woman could be anyone’s grandma. People could look at that image and feel for the woman,” Fujiwara said.
Fujiwara’s efforts were focused in the Bay Area, where she participated in citizenship drives and classes, ran community information forums and organized protests.
The most successful demonstration took place on May 28, 1997, 100 days before the cuts were to be implemented. Thousands of protesters gathered on the steps of the state legislature and groups of five to 10 at a time entered the building to speak with legislators.
“We coached people beforehand on what to say, and we had pre-scripted demands for everyone to make,” Fujiwara said. “There were two lines going around the building. We wore them out all day.”