HIAS Urges Congress and Administration Not to Cut Off Elderly and Disabled Refugees from SSI: Exhorts Congress to renew benefit extension

Posted on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 10:09 am

(Washington, D.C) – HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, calls on Congress and the Administration to enact legislation immediately that extends assistance for up to 3,800 elderly and disabled refugees, asylees, and other humanitarian immigrants in the United States who are dependent on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to pay for food and shelter. Many of them are Jewish and HIAS clients from the former Soviet Union, Iran and other countries. The current two-year extension of SSI benefits is slated to expire on Sept. 30, 2010, leaving thousands without this critical monetary lifeline.

SSI is a federal income supplement program to help the aged, blind, and disabled who have little or no income by providing cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and housing. It is available to citizens and historically was available to unaturalized refugees and asylees, as well. Since welfare reform was enacted in 1996, however, refugees and asylees are eligible only on a temporary basis. Though most refugees naturalize within 5 to 7 years, a small segment are unable to for reasons of age, infirmity, or disability.

Without this extension, refugees and asylees who have received SSI for seven years will be cut off, unless they have a naturalization application pending, in which case they may receive only up to one additional year of SSI. Those unable to naturalize, like Valentina – a 78 year old widow who was resettled nearly a decade ago with her husband to Atlanta, Georgia and is a refugee from Kazakhstan – will lose their sole means of financial support.

According to Gideon Aronoff, President and CEO of HIAS, “Refugees and asylees are admitted to the U.S. because they have been the victims of persecution in their home countries. While most refugees and asylees are able to rebuild their lives in America with minimal assistance, the elderly or disabled may never be able to provide their own means of support because of their inability to work.

“It is essential that Congress and the Administration move immediately to renew the SSI benefits extension and, ultimately, to delink benefits from citizenship. Without this, we are leaving our most vulnerable residents behind – and not living up to our nation’s promise of providing refuge to the persecuted and dispossessed.”

Added Senior Vice-President for Policy and Programs Mark Hetfield: “Not only is it inhumane for the United States to throw disabled refugees and asylees out on the street, but it is also a violation of international law. Article 23 of the Refugee Convention requires that countries ‘shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to their nationals.’”

Additional background: SSI provides a modest monthly payment – approximately $674 per month for individuals – for humanitarian immigrants who face unemployment and increased barriers to naturalization. Many cannot pass the citizenship exams because of difficulty in learning English resulting from old age, mental impairments, or illiteracy in their first language. They have limited access to naturalization preparation and education programs and limited funds; the naturalization application fee can cost up to $675, more than a whole month of an individual’s SSI payment. Moreover, many of these individuals have no legal counsel to guide them through the immigration system, and they often miss deadlines or are unable to apply for possible waivers. In other words, there are many practical reasons why these elderly and disabled individuals need more time to naturalize and extended access to SSI.

Prior to the 1996 welfare reform legislation, disabled and elderly refugees and asylees were – like citizens – eligible for SSI indefinitely. After the enactment of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996, they were only eligible for SSI benefits for five years, which was later amended to seven years to allow refugees and asylees time to apply for citizenship. Under the Administration of George W. Bush, this period was temporarily extended; this extension is about to expire.

The immediate objective of HIAS is to protect these 3,800 elderly and disabled humanitarian immigrants from losing their benefits in 2011 by providing them with a third year of benefits, in addition to the initial two-year extension. The $30.7 million required to fund this service will give these individuals an extra year to attempt naturalization. Although this measure temporarily will ensure monetary lifelines are kept intact, HIAS affirms that the ultimate goal is to permanently delink refugees’, asylees’ and other humanitarian immigrants’ eligibility for SSI from the citizenship requirement.