A Small Victory for an East African Asylum Seeker

Posted by Bethany Orlikowski on Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm

With HIAS’ help, a dedicated pro bono attorney, and a strong commitment from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a woman from East Africa was able to continue receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, her only financial lifeline preventing her from falling into destitution.

SSI provides a modest stipend of approximately $674 per month to elderly or disabled persons who are unable to support themselves. After a 2008 extension expired on September 30th, refugees and other humanitarian migrants reverted back to a seven year period of eligibility for SSI benefits. The 2008 extension had granted an extra two years of eligibility, and an extra third year if the beneficiary could show that they had an application for naturalization pending. Now, after seven years, if they do not naturalize, they will lose their SSI benefits. These refugees rely on their monthly check to cover basic expenses such as food, rent, and medications.

Beza* fled her country of birth in East Africa after she and her entire family were persecuted, detained, and beaten as a result of their political beliefs. Beza eventually received asylum in the United States. About a year after she immigrated, Beza became ill and was hospitalized. While in the hospital she learned for the first time that she was HIV positive. As her medical bills started piling up, Beza felt trapped. She learned about the SSI program and started receiving benefits soon thereafter. Beza relies on this stipend to pay for her rent, food, utilities and telephone bills because her illnesses makes it impossible for her to work and receive a steady paycheck. “When I found out I was approved for SSI, it felt like I was being rescued from a fire. I would like Members of Congress to see that people like me are human beings, not just foreigners, and this can be a matter of life and death for us.”

Beza wanted to become an American citizen as soon as she became eligible. She filed a timely application for a green card but the process was delayed because she didn’t know that she had to apply for an HIV waiver along with her application. This delay had devastating effects; Beza was facing the possibility of losing vital SSI benefits. She had missed the deadline by a mere four weeks. “If I lost my SSI [benefits], I would have no way to pay rent and would lose my current apartment, and I can’t get a new apartment because my credit is ruined from my medical bills. I would also have no way to buy food, and would lose my health insurance through Medicaid.”

HIAS was able to put Beza’s attorney in contact with officials at USCIS, and Beza was able to get expedited processing of her citizenship application. A matter days made all the difference: Beza wasn’t able to naturalize until three days before she was scheduled lose her benefits. Even though there were no official ceremonies scheduled for that day, USCIS officers were extremely accommodating and organized a private naturalization ceremony as soon as she was eligible. As a result of this small but significant victory, Beza was able to continue receiving the crucial benefits that she relies on to sustain herself.

HIAS also continues to work with a national group of advocates and services providers to pass an extension of SSI benefits for humanitarian migrants like Beza. Senators Schumer (D-NY), Gillibrand (D-NY), Leahy (D-VT), and Franken (D-MN) have introduced an emergency one year extension in the Senate, S. 1618, and Reps. McDermott (D-WA) and Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) have introduced legislation, H.R. 2763, which would provide an additional 2 years of SSI eligibility for humanitarian migrants, in the House. Read more about this issue on the HIAS website and on the Jewish Daily Forward’s Editorials page.

* Names, dates and identifying references have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the individuals mentioned in the article.

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