Of Note: A Celebration of the New Year: HIAS Advocacy for the Long Haul -- SSI Restored for Vulnerable Refugees

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Thu, Oct 02, 2008 at 12:46 pm

This Rosh Hashanah, HIAS is celebrating not only the beginning of the year 5769, but also President Bush’s signature on Tuesday, September 30, of the SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act. This happy event is the culmination of a HIAS advocacy campaign that has lasted for a dozen years.

In 1996, HIAS, along with other activists in the Jewish community and organizations concerned with the welfare of immigrants and refugees, greeted the passage of the welfare reform bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), with alarm, recognizing that tens of thousands of refugees and other victims of persecution would lose life-sustaining public benefits.

One of the largest single groups of elderly and disabled refugees who lost their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits under PRWORA – approximately 40% of the total – were Jews and others from the former Soviet Union (FSU). Of course, Iranians, Vietnamese, Cubans, Somalis, former Yugoslavs, and Iraqis and many others also faced grave consequences. Under PRWORA, all refugees lost their SSI if they failed to naturalize within seven years of arrival in the United States – something often made impossible by lost papers at the Immigration Service, delayed security clearances (often for years), or refugees’ difficulty learning English. For many, SSI was their sole source of income assistance and their only hope of living out their final days in dignity and security.

HIAS, the agency that had brought so many Soviet Jews to this country, vowed to fight this injustice, no matter how long it took, because of our fundamental Jewish belief in protecting refugees, caring for the elderly and sick and the injunction from the book of Exodus “to have one law for the native born and the stranger who lives among us.”

And so, year in and year out, HIAS worked toward restoring SSI eligibility and ensuring that the fewest number of vulnerable refugees would face these hardships. Among the key components of HIAS’ campaign have been:

• Working with Jewish community partners to identify victims or potential victims who were at risk of losing SSI;
• Conducting public awareness campaigns on the SSI issue and assisting with court challenges to the PRWORA provisions;
• Organizing trainings for communities to help them develop programs to naturalize refugees and directly representing applicants before the Immigration Service and in Immigration Court;
• Liaising with immigration and security officials to resolve hundreds of cases of elderly FSU refugees who faced security clearance reviews of up to three years;
• Advocating with the President and Congress for a bipartisan legislative solution to this humanitarian crisis; and
• Laying the groundwork with the Social Security Administration for a program to successfully implement a legislative solution.

Though the years since 1996 often were filled with frustration as the legislative fix for SSI remained just out of reach, we at HIAS continued to have faith that the justice of the cause and the intense effort of the coalition ultimately would succeed. Keeping our refugee clients at the forefront of our thoughts, we built a coalition that included key Senators and Representatives, President Bush – who incorporated proposed extensions in his budget proposals for several years – and a powerful partnership of grassroots and DC-based advocates who never gave up the challenge of providing security for the most vulnerable refugees.

The enactment of the SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act – sponsored by Senators Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Representatives Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Jerry Weller (R-IL) – is a crucial victory in this great campaign. This law provides two additional years of SSI benefits, a third year for those making good faith efforts to become citizens and have pending applications, and retroactive benefits for refugees who previously lost their SSI. This year’s legislation provides temporary relief to all and a permanent solution to the vast majority of the affected refugees.

For all of us at HIAS, this campaign underscores an essential lesson: we must remain absolutely focused on our goals, no matter the opposition or set backs, if we are to meet the challenges of our 127 year humanitarian mission to serve Jewish refugees and other vulnerable migrants in need. We also must continue to engage our political leaders on a bipartisan basis and challenge them to join us in this universal calling. Moreover we must redouble our efforts to grow a nationwide advocacy coalition to generate the grassroots power needed to achieve real and sustained change for refugees, immigrants, and New Americans.

Making this victory possible was the tireless support and effort of our national Jewish partners from United Jewish Communities, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Association of Jewish Family and Children’s Agencies, and so many other organizations; local Jewish communities with particular active leadership from the Jewish Federations of Chicago and New York; organizations and clergy from many faith communities; and leaders of the social justice movement concerned with assisting newcomers. This coalition will be needed again to build on today’s success, and to ultimately win a complete delinking of SSI from citizenship status and more rational and compassionate rules for elderly refugees seeking to naturalize.

So, as we celebrate the joy of the New Year and the sweet victory on SSI, we maintain a sober awareness that we still face daunting challenges. May this be a year in which we achieve real Comprehensive Immigration Reform here at home and are able to provide protection to former Soviet, Iranian, Darfuri, Iraqi, Burmese and so many other refugees around the globe. On behalf of HIAS around the world, I wish you, your families, and all of us a year of peace and continued action to repair our fractured world.

L’Shana Tovah and Happy New Year.

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