HIAS Lauds Senate Passage of SSI Extension: Measure would help thousands of elderly and disabled Jewish refugees at risk

Posted on Fri, Aug 01, 2008 at 15:52 pm

(Washington, D.C.)– HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, applauds the Senate’s passage of a bill yesterday extending Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for disabled and elderly refugees. HIAS is particularly gratified because when this bill becomes law among its primary beneficiaries will be the aging Russian-Jewish émigré community in the U.S. – a population that HIAS has worked tirelessly to protect through years of intensive advocacy work at the grass-roots, local, regional, and national levels.

“This is the most encouraging sign we’ve seen in recent years that Washington understands the plight of these refugees, who are in particularly dire situations,” says Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “HIAS has been adamantly against funding welfare reform at the expense of this vulnerable population and is appreciative of the bipartisan leadership shown by Senator Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Senator Herbert Kohl (D-Wisc.), sponsors of the Senate’s companion bill.”

The House passed a similar version of the legislation last summer. Both versions extend SSI eligibility for two years for refugees, asylees, and other qualified immigrants, including those whose benefits recently expired. Benefits also would be extended an additional year for refugees waiting for a decision on their pending citizenship applications. The SSI legislation comes at no cost to American taxpayers, as it funded through a provision that allows the government to deduct from taxpayers’ refund checks debts they might owe for fraudulently obtained unemployment benefits.

HIAS, which has worked on behalf of the Jewish community on all aspects of immigration and resettlement since it opened its doors in 1881, has been aggressively advocating for solutions to the SSI issue since 1996, when welfare reform severely restricted access to subsistence benefits for elderly and disabled refugees. In 2003 the severity of the problem came to light, particularly after changes in U.S. policies created massive naturalization backlogs.

The number of people who are losing their life-sustaining SSI benefits, in large part due to delays in the immigration system beyond their control, is climbing. The Social Security Administration currently projects that by the end of 2008 more than 30,000 elderly and disabled refugees will have lost their benefits; more than 19,000 are projected to lose their benefits in the coming years. These individuals fled persecution or torture in countries such as Iran, Russia, Iraq, Vietnam, and Somalia, and now are too elderly or disabled to support themselves.

The House and the Senate are expected to reconcile the two pieces of legislation, immediately after the August recess.