Nearly 300 National, Regional, Local Groups Urge Congress To Preserve Lifeline to Elderly And Disabled Refugees

Posted on Mon, Oct 16, 2006 at 13:38 pm

A HIAS-led Effort

(Washington, D.C.)– Faced with the crisis that thousands of elderly and disabled refugees have lost and will continue to lose their only means of subsistence, HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – has led hundreds of organizations in calling on Congress to take action.

The letter was signed by 75 national organizations, including Catholic Charities USA, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and National Council on Aging, and 215 local and regional organizations from 38 states. In it, they urge legislators to pass a bill allowing vulnerable individuals to receive a life-sustaining benefit for an additional two years while they continue the naturalization process.

Under the 1996 welfare reform legislation, refugees, asylees and other humanitarian migrants were allowed seven years to become citizens, or lose their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. SSI provides a modest stipend to help keep elderly, disabled, and blind individuals, who are unable to support themselves, from falling too deeply into poverty. Yet since 2003, delays in the immigration system beyond their control and difficulty learning English has resulted in elderly and disabled refugees losing this essential life-sustaining benefit. Nearly 6,000 elderly and disabled refugees have already lost their SSI benefits, and that number is quickly climbing.

“If we as a community and as a nation do not act now, we’re looking at about 40,000 refugees who will lose SSI by 2016, and at least 8,000 of them are from the former Soviet Union,” says Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “These are people who 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 bill in question – SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees – was introduced last year by Senators Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and Herbert Kohl (D-Wisc.) in the Senate and Representatives Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and Philip English (R-Penn,) in the House. The bill would give this vulnerable population an additional two years to go through the citizenship process while maintaining their SSI benefits.

“The scope of groups signing onto this statement urging passage of the SSI bill – religious organizations, social service providers, disability support groups, human rights organizations, and many others – shows the depth of support within the country for protecting the most at risk,” says Aronoff.

“We are hopeful that Congress will pass this bill before the end of the year and that by doing so, prevent the unnecessary hardship that this already victimized population stands to suffer,” says Aronoff.