Our Home Front Refugees in Crisis

Posted on Mon, Oct 16, 2006 at 13:26 pm

Jonathan M. Stein is general counsel at Community Legal Services, Inc., in Philadelphia

Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York

“Give me...Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Shmuel Kaplan, an 80-old amputee, breathed a sigh of relief when in 1997 the United States granted him political asylum after he fled anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union. Two years later, we similarly received the Iranian boy Rouzbeh Aliaghaei and his parents. His mother was a high school teacher who had been imprisoned and twice fired for decrying the treatment of women and their lack of freedom. Nine year-old Rouzbeh understood little of his family’s flight—he is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder resulting in profound mental retardation.

Ever lifting the lamp of freedom “beside the golden door” in poet Emma Lazurus’ famous phrase, America welcomed these immigrants on humanitarian grounds, fulfilling our obligation to provide safe harbor to victims of persecution. Because of their severe disabilities, the impoverished Shmuel and Rouzbeh qualified for Medicaid health insurance and the special support of $603 a month through Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the same safety net available to permanently disabled US citizens at the poverty level.

But now Shmuel and Rouzbeh are in crisis: their SSI has been yanked away. Still unable to support themselves, they have hit the end of a seven-year SSI time-limit. In an unprecedented departure from federal policies toward refugees, as part of the 1996 welfare reform law the federal government restricted SSI benefits to refugees to their first seven years in the country.

However, this policy has proved to be disastrous for Shmuel Kaplan, the Aliaghaei boy and thousands like them, for a variety of reasons. Established in a pre-9/11 era, the cut-off limit assumed that seven years was ample time for refugees or asylees receiving SSI to naturalize into citizenship and as U.S. citizens, continue receiving SSI benefits. The 1996 law also mandated that all other newly arriving legal immigrants eligible for SSI as elderly or disabled would be restricted access to it until they became U.S. citizens.

In retrospect, the 1996 legislation is a “Catch 22.” To naturalize, one must first obtain permanent resident status. Rouzbeh’s parents, for example, applied at the earliest time possible; nonetheless, it took five years for them to receive their “green card,” granting them status of legal permanent residents. The naturalization process then necessitates the refugee to exhaust a five-year permanent residence requirement.

Thereafter, the stalwart applicant faces further processing delays—there are almost one million naturalization applications now backlogged at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency primarily due to name and security checks. For Shmuel and for Rouzbeh, as with many other disabled and elderly refugees, their mental impairments and age present further obstacles to naturalization. Six thousand already have been terminated from SSI. If federal law is not adjusted to present realities, 40,000 more terminations are projected.

Linking SSI eligibility to citizenship for disabled refugees is fundamentally flawed. A bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommended against its linkage as a debasement of citizenship, reasoning that we should not make deprivation the incentive to naturalize. As well, long-standing federal immigration policy recognizes that refugees often must escape with no assets and no relatives here to support them. As a consequence, our laws have long exempted them from exclusion on “public charge” grounds, or required of them “affidavits of support” from legally responsible sponsors.

Refugees affected include Russian Jews who were persecuted for their religion; Catholics fleeing violence in Indonesia; Iraqi Kurds who escaped Saddam Hussein’s wrath; Cubans who fled the Castro regime; and Hmong refugees who fought alongside with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Most refugees in the U.S. are employed and self-sufficient. However, a minority of refugees suffer disabling physical and mental impairments. Like U.S. citizens, they need the assistance of SSI and Medicaid to sustain their lives.

An extension of SSI is supported in principle by the White House as well as by a bipartisan group of legislators sponsoring bills in the Senate and House (S.667, HR 899). Yet these measures have not been treated as priorities. They need to be passed this year before Congress adjourns for the year. And even better, Congress should enact legislation that would provide full access to SSI for disabled refugees and asylees.

The “Mother of Exiles” is Emma Lazarus’ metaphor for the Statue of Liberty—and by extension, the United States herself. The phrase embodies the long-standing ideal of our nation to embrace the “tempest-tossed.” To remain a compassionate country, America should no longer be terminating SSI to her disabled and aged refugees.