Of Note: The HIAS Supplemental Security Income Initiative: Don't cut off assistance to disabled, aged refugees

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Mon, Oct 01, 2007 at 17:38 pm

Since Congress enacted legislation in 1996 that sought to “reform” welfare – in significant part on the backs of immigrant families – HIAS has been deeply engaged in the struggle to restore benefits to some of our nation’s most vulnerable newcomers. Central to HIAS’ work on this issue has been an effort to ensure that elderly and disabled refugees continue to receive life-sustaining benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The HIAS SSI Initiative fulfills two of our core expressions of Jewish values: Kol Israel Arevim Zeh B’Zeh (All Israel is Responsible One for the Other) and “You Shall Have One Law for the Citizen and the Stranger Who Dwells Among You” (Exodus 12:49). The extreme vulnerability of these elderly and disabled refugees, and the fact that refugees from the former Soviet Union comprise the largest single group who are losing benefits, make this issue particularly compelling for us.

As we have reported throughout the year, we remain hopeful that we will succeed and soon see legislation enacted finally restoring SSI benefits. On the positive side, the President once again included an extension of benefits in his budget proposal for 2008 and in July the House approved its SSI restoration bill. However, the legislation has – for now – stalled in the Senate where two Senators have placed anonymous holds on the bill.

Despite this disappointment, HIAS continues to fight day in and day out to win passage of this vitally important legislation during the later days of this session of Congress. HIAS is leading a coalition of interfaith groups, with very strong participation from our many Jewish sister organizations, to send a message loud and clear that the Senate should not play politics with the lives of desperate refugees.

The attached September 22nd Op Ed from the Lexington (KY) Herald Leader is the latest product from this focused HIAS campaign – one that involves key staff from HIAS’ advocacy, immigration services and communications departments. We have joined with colleagues from Catholic Charities USA, both nationally and from Kentucky, to issue a direct challenge to Senator McConnell and particularly to Senator Bunning, believed to be one of the Senators who have placed holds on the SSI restoration bill: to move the bill forward - Now! Similar activity is underway in South Carolina focusing on Senator DeMint.

Special thanks are in order to Candice Knezevic of our DC office and Morris Ardoin of Communications for their tremendous work on this media advocacy effort.

Shana Tova.


Lexington (KY) Herald Leader
September 22, 2007

Don't cut off assistance to disabled, aged refugees
By Steven E. Bogus, Gideon Aronoff and Larry Snyder

Ever-lifting the lamp of freedom "beside the golden door" in poet Emma Lazarus' famous phrase, America welcomed refugees and others on humanitarian grounds, fulfilling our obligation to provide safe harbor to victims of persecution.

Yet in the past five years, thousands of refugees have been plunged into destitution by a restrictive provision of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act that tied Supplemental Security Insurance eligibility to citizenship for refugees, asylees and other humanitarian noncitizens. Thousands more will face the same fate unless Congress passes a crucial bill to redress the problem.

Since 1974, the U.S. government has provided low-income elderly, blind and disabled individuals with financial support through SSI. It was not until 1996, when Congress passed and then-President Bill Clinton signed sweeping welfare and immigration legislation, that legal immigrants became ineligible for SSI.

Recognizing the special status and circumstances of refugees, Congress decided to give refugees, asylees and other humanitarian non-citizens a few short years of SSI eligibility, requiring them to become citizens to retain their benefits.

Though some restorations passed in subsequent years, SSI remains the only federal means-tested public benefit program that cuts off refugees after seven years unless they become citizens. Many refugees are unable to become citizens within seven years because of bureaucratic and security delays and difficulty learning English to pass the naturalization exam, among other reasons.

Without SSI and facing extreme destitution, refugees are even less likely to make it through the naturalization process, given their overriding concerns about how they will afford food and housing.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Catholic Charities USA have been working with a national coalition of organizations since 2003, when the first refugees began hitting the seven-year mark, to pass legislation ensuring that thousands more refugees do not face the same destitution and desperation to which so many have already fallen victim.

On July 11, the House took a critical step toward helping these vulnerable refugees by unanimously passing the SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act. It would extend SSI eligibility for two or three years for refugees, asylees and other humanitarian non-citizens, including those whose benefits recently expired.

What's more, the bill would come at no additional cost to taxpayers because of a provision that offsets the modest cost of the extension. It allows states to collect unemployment insurance debts resulting from fraud by requesting from the treasury department a reduction in federal tax refunds owed to the individuals.

Thus, not only would the SSI extension bill provide immediate relief to thousands of refugees, it also would effectively reduce taxes on employers by more than $300 million over the next 10 years by reducing fraud in the unemployment insurance system.

One would have thought that with unanimous passage in the House and the Bush administration's full support, the bill would have passed without much trouble in the Senate. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Sens. Gordon Smith and Herbert Kohl, the legislation's lead champions in the Senate, are seeking to pass this crucial legislation by unanimous consent in the Senate, but the bill became stalled by a few anonymous "holds" placed on it.

Kentucky's Senate delegation is particularly well-poised to help move the bill forward: Mitch McConnell is the minority leader, and Jim Bunning sits on the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over this legislation.

Every month, elderly and disabled refugees -- many of whom come here with no family, friends, money or documents and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – are losing their lifeline of support. Included in the nearly 10,000 refugees that have already been cut off from SSI eligibility are Russian Jews who were persecuted for their religion; Catholics fleeing violence in Indonesia; Iraqi Kurds who escaped Saddam Hussein's wrath; Cubans who fled the Castro regime; and Hmong refugees who fought alongside the U.S. military in Vietnam.

If not remedied soon, the Social Security Administration estimates that some 50,000 refugees and others, including hundreds of Kentuckians, will be cut off from SSI by the end of 2012.

The "Mother of Exiles" is Emma Lazarus' metaphor for the Statue of Liberty -- and by extension, the United States herself. The phrase embodies the longstanding ideal of our nation to embrace the "tempest-tossed." The United States thus admits refugees with the promise of security and protection against the dangerous situations they encounter in their home countries.

Yet for many elderly refugees, we are breaking that promise because they cannot learn English or get through the citizenship process quickly enough. To remain a compassionate country, we should no longer be terminating SSI to disabled and aged refugees.

Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Rev. Larry Snyder is president of Catholic Charities USA. Steven E. Bogus is executive director of Catholic Charities of Louisville.

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