HIAS Breathes Sigh Of Relief As Senate Takes First Step To Help Threatened Jewish Seniors

Posted on Wed, Mar 23, 2005 at 13:31 pm

(New York, NY) – The legislative campaign to restore Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for elderly and disabled refugees advanced on Wednesday when the Senate Finance Committee approved a provision in the Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) Act to provide a two-year extension of benefits.

Under the 1996 welfare reform legislation, refugees, asylees and other humanitarian migrants were provided seven years to become citizens or lose their SSI benefits. Sadly, since 2003, logistical problems, difficulty learning English and an arbitrary annual cap on the number of asylees who could get green cards has resulted in elderly and disabled refugees losing these essential life-sustaining benefits.

“If we as a community and as a nation do not act now, we’re looking at about 20,000 refugees who will lose SSI by 2010, and 8,000 of them are from the former Soviet Union,” says Leonard Glickman, president and CEO of HIAS. “We’re very encouraged by the leadership displayed by the Senate Finance Committee, especially Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ranking Member Max Baucus (D-Mont.), as well as Senators Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) who are the lead sponsors of the legislation.”

“These Senators are true heroes of American humanitarian principles in action,” Glickman says. “They saw a desperate need and acted to make a difference in the lives of thousands of vulnerable persecution victims who have been offered new lives here in America.”

Glickman points out that progress on SSI restoration would not have been possible without President Bush’s decision to include SSI restoration for refugees in his fiscal year 2006 budget proposal. “As part of a broader effort by the President to reinvigorate the U.S. refugee program, President Bush’s pledge to restore SSI benefits this year was an essential recognition that, while most will be able to naturalize, refugees are a category of migrants deserving of special compassion and assistance.”

The American Jewish community has rallied to support refugees facing a cut-off of SSI benefits. In addition to enhancing efforts to help refugees achieve their goal of American citizenship, Jewish groups, under HIAS leadership, are calling on Congress to pass the Senate SSI legislation and its House counterpart, H.R. 899. As part of this effort, today HIAS is releasing a Jewish Community Statement with 22 national and 34 local Jewish organizations. [Jewish Community statement follows this release].

“The scope of groups signing onto this statement – religious organizations from all Jewish religious streams, defense agencies, federations, community relations councils, social service providers, and many others – shows the depth of support within the community for protecting the most at risk,” says Glickman.

While numerous steps remain before this proposal becomes law, the Senate’s action gives refugees and their supporters clear reason to hope that we will ultimately see an extension of SSI benefits this year, explains Glickman. “We will work closely with colleagues in the Jewish and refugee communities to see that refugees are provided with all the care, support and assistance possible during the time in their lives when they need it most.”

Jewish Community Statement On An Extension Of Supplemental Security Income Eligibility To Elderly And Disabled Refugees
March 11, 2005 (Updated March 14, 2005)

As leaders of American Jewish organizations, we share in the core national value of offering safe haven and protection to those fleeing persecution. As such, we encourage passage of legislation that will provide an additional two years of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to elderly and disabled refugees and other humanitarian migrants. This legislation was recently introduced by Senators Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Herb Kohl (D-WI), and Representatives Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Phil English (R-PA) (S.453/H.R.899).

Mirroring American traditions, Jewish teachings emphasize protection for the stranger, as seen in the over 36 references to this principle within the Torah, including: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jewish tradition also instructs us in principles of Piddyon Shevuyim (redeeming the captive), Hiddur Pnai Zaken (respect for elders), Chesed (kindness), and Hachnasat Orchim (hospitality), which support a compassionate response to the problems of refugees and the elderly.

Over the past two decades, the Jewish community, in partnership with the U.S. government, has resettled over 380,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union, as well as tens of thousands from other volatile areas of the world. Many of these individuals – victims of religious persecution – were elderly and disabled upon reaching our shores. It has been an honor for the Jewish community to assist refugees so that as many as possible can become citizens.

Understanding our country’s responsibility to care for those whom we have brought to safety, lawmakers made special provision in the 1996 welfare law to allow refugees continued eligibility for public benefits programs. Among the most critical are SSI benefits, which provide life-sustaining assistance to the elderly and disabled. Refugees and asylees were made eligible for SSI for seven years, with the belief that they could naturalize – and thus maintain their benefits – within this time period.

However, because of processing delays, difficulty learning English, and a cap on the number of asylees issued green cards each year, seven years is not long enough for many individuals to become citizens. As a result, these elderly and disabled refugees are being cut-off from SSI benefits and face hardship and poverty. We understand that by 2010, approximately 20,000 refugees will lose SSI, 8,000 of whom will be from the former Soviet Union.

The pending House and Senate legislation has received bipartisan support. Furthermore President Bush, in his fiscal year 2006 budget request, identified this grave problem as one needing an immediate solution. We urge passage of this modest but life-sustaining provision of critical importance to the Jewish community during this session of Congress.

NATIONAL:

Agudath Israel of America
American Association of Jews from the Former USSR
American Congress of Bukharian Jews
American Jewish Committee
Anti-Defamation League
Association of Jewish Aging Services
Association of Jewish Family and Children's Agencies
B'nai B'rith International
Hebrew Free Loan Society
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
International Association of Jewish Vocational Services
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Labor Committee
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty
NCSJ: Advocates on behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Eurasia
National Council of Jewish Women
Russian-American Voter Education League
Union For Reform Judaism
Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
United Jewish Communities
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring

LOCAL:

American Association of Jews from the Former USSR, New York Chapter
Baltimore Jewish Council
Borough Park Jewish Community Council
Canton Jewish Community Federation and Jewish Family Services, Canton, OH
Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush
Crown Heights Jewish Community Council Federation
HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia
Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action
Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit
Jewish Community Council of Rockaway Peninsula
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington
Jewish Community Relations Council of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation
Jewish Family and Children's Services of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties
Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland, Ohio
Jewish Family Service Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic
Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati
Jewish Family Service, Seattle
Jewish Family Services of Milwaukee
Jewish Family Services, Columbus
Jewish Family Services, Milwaukee
Jewish Federation of Atlantic and Cape May Counties
Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey
Jewish Federation of Greater Monmouth County
Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey
Marks JCH of Bensonhurst
Maryland Association of Jews from the Former USSR
Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations
Milwaukee Jewish Federation
New Haven Jewish Community Relations Council
New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations
New York Association for New Americans
Ohio Jewish Communities
UJA-Federation of New York
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey
United Jewish Council of the Lower East Side
United Jewish Federation of San Diego County
United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg