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Safety Net Support for Disabled Refugees Lapses on Congressional Inaction


Some political refugees, including Iraqi Kurds or Vietnamese Hmong, stand to lose lifeline payments. (U.S. Army)

In recent weeks, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has received dozens of messages from refugees facing extraordinary hardship. One came from a 50-year-old woman confined to a wheelchair. She fled government persecution in Liberia, and is worried about passing her naturalization test. Another woman came to the U.S. from Cuba. She depleted her finances battling cancer.

[Economy1] But the two women are not worried about their health, or their status. They are worried about their Supplemental Security Income, a program that allows the elderly and disabled, including humanitarian refugees, to small Social Security payments. (Normally non-citizens cannot receive Social Security in any form. The United States makes an exception for refugees.) Just a few thousand non-citizens need them, and they are available for only the neediest people: those who have less than $2,000 to their name and are elderly, blind, or suffering from disabilities. Refugee recipients tend to be particularly strapped. The first woman lost her Supplemental Security Income payments is April. The second will lose them this week — on Oct. 1 — along with 3,800 others.

Yesterday, the Senate considered a measure to extend eligibility for Supplemental Security Income for some of the neediest refugees. The bill, introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would cost about $22 million, fully paid for by a fee collected for unemployment fraud. It came up for unanimous consent, but failed to pass in the final hours of the session.

Refugee advocates are outraged. Non-citizen SSI recipients have often undergone persecution and torture. They fled atrocities in Sudan, Iraq, Russia and Vietnam before receiving refuge and minimal support here. Advocates of extending SSI eligibility argue the federal government has broken its promise to refugees by setting limits on how long elderly and disabled refugees can receive federal aid without gaining citizenship. Unlike others who receive SSI payments, refugees are limited to a short time period — seven years — for receiving funding until they become U.S. citizens.

Eligibility was extended in 2008, when President George W. Bush pushed for two additional years of SSI payments for elderly and disabled refugees. But now the two years are up, and some of these refugees have remained unable to gain citizenship. When the new fiscal year starts Friday, they could be dropped off SSI payments until they are able to become citizens — if they are able to successfully complete the process at all.

The problem is that refugees are welcomed into the U.S., but treated differently from citizens under the SSI program, says Dinah Wiley, public benefits policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center.

“It’s a matter of equity and fairness,” she says. “Cutting people off is not an issue for citizens, and we’re imposing an additional citizenship requirements on these SSI recipients that many of them just can’t meet.”

The standards were established in 1996, when welfare reform created time limits for refugees receiving SSI payments. After coming to the U.S., legal residents must wait at least five years to apply for citizenship, a process that requires them to know some English and pay application fees unless they obtain waivers. The system is designed with loopholes in place to help the poor, elderly and disabled, who often have more difficulty learning English and coming up with the $595 naturalization fees. But the same issue that keeps refugees from passing the tests often keeps them from getting out of it: Many do not know the waivers are an option or where they can go for help.

While Melanie Nezer, senior director U.S. policy and advocacy, hears from many refugees who have lost or face losing SSI payments, she says she worries more about the refugees who do not know they can reach out for support.

“These are people who don’t always have access to help,” Nezer says. “If they could reach us, we could help them, but these are people who don’t even know where to start.”

It would be better to end time limits for eligibility, advocates say, but in the meantime a one-year extension could prevent thousands of refugees from losing SSI payments. Groups say they plan to continue to lobby in the lame duck session and next year for Congress to eliminate limits on SSI eligibility for refugees.

Although efforts to extend SSI payments have not encountered serious opposition — the extension in 2008 earned bipartisan support — rights groups have had trouble getting it added to the legislative calendar. “We don’t really hear opposition, we just have difficulty getting support,” Wiley says.

“It costs a certain amounts to provide benefits to people, but what does it cost for people to be dropping off and being reinstated, causing a lot of anguish on the part of very vulnerable fragile people and their friends and neighbors?” she says. “All the costs have to be considered.”

One cost is on local communities and governments, which often have to step in when the federal government does not. This is frustrating for state legislatures, which have no ability to control the influx of refugees into their state but are tasked with spending state funds to pay for their health care and support when federal payments stop.

The National Conference of State Legislatures pushed for the government to extend eligibility to ensure refugees are given payments by the federal government. In a Sept. 28 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the organization said Congress should extend payments to prevent “states from bearing the unfair burden of providing for the health and welfare of these individuals,” made even more difficult as state budgets shrink in the recession.

“If the government withdraws SSI benefits, [refugees] are shifted to state and local governments if their health care takes place in the emergency room or their income support comes from state programs,” says Sheri Steisel of the National Conference for State Legislatures. “We believe the federal government has a responsibility to live up to the decision they make in deciding who is a refugee.”

When all levels of government fail the refugees, local communities are often left with the cost. This is true for refugees of all ages, but particularly the elderly and disabled who receive SSI payments, says Eric Sigmon, director for advocacy for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Because the effort to extend eligibility failed, the refugees who lose their federal aid Friday will be particularly dependent on these social networks, he says.

“It may mean they will have to rely on friends and family, maybe even their churches and other organizations to find a way to pay for food and grocery or ongoing health care,” he says. “Efforts will have to be taken to make sure outreach is done to create some kind of safety net for folks that will be facing some pretty tough times.”

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