Many indigent refugees to lose federal assistance

Published on Aug 04 2010 // Commentary

The Social Security Administration is about to terminate cash assistance for thousands of indigent refugees who are severely disabled or over the age of 64.

“You will lose your Supplemental Security Income on Oct. 1,” the agency says in letters being mailed to more than 3,800 refugees.

All fled persecution or torture. Many are too old or infirm to work and are not yet eligible to become United States citizens.

Federal law sets a seven-year limit on payments to refugees. The maximum federal payment is $674 a month for an individual and $1,011 a month for a couple. In 2008, Congress provided a two-year extension of benefits for elderly and disabled refugees, asylum seekers and certain other humanitarian immigrants, including victims of sex trafficking.

The extra eligibility period is now ending, and Congress has not taken action to extend it.

Among those expected to lose benefits are a Sudanese couple, Obid Sharif and Buthaina Elamin Adam, both 73. They came to this country in 2000, obtained asylum and live in Reston, Va.

They have permanent resident status, or green cards, but cannot apply for citizenship for several years.

“Supplemental Security Income is their only source of income,” said their son, Haitham Mahmoud. “Without it, life for them will be really difficult.”

Mr. Mahmoud said his father, who has prostate cancer, and his mother, who has heart trouble, would probably lose their health insurance when their cash benefits were cut off.

The extension of benefits in 2008 had bipartisan support. Indeed, President George W. Bush had asked Congress to extend the deadline, saying that “some individuals have been unable to obtain citizenship within the seven-year time limit.”

But no bill has been introduced in either chamber of Congress to help refugees facing the loss of benefits this year.

“It’s clear that any bill designed to help needy populations has a hard road to travel,” said Representative Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat and chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee that is responsible for the program.

It was only with great difficulty that Congress passed an extension of unemployment benefits for 2.5 million Americans last month, Mr. McDermott pointed out.

As a senator, President Obama was co-sponsor of a bill extending refugees’ eligibility for cash assistance, and as a presidential candidate he emphasized his support for it. But the administration has not taken a position this year.

Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for Social Security, said the administration had not sent Congress a proposal to extend benefits.

Kenneth S. Baer, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said, “The administration has been following this issue closely and consulting with stakeholders and members of Congress to develop an appropriate response.”

Tyler T. Moran, policy director of the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for low-income immigrants, said: “Advocates have been in touch with White House and Social Security officials, urging them to weigh in with Congress on this issue. To date, nothing has happened. We remain hopeful.”

The refugees and asylum seekers come from countries like Cuba, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Somalia and Vietnam. They include Jews who fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, Iraqi Kurds oppressed by Saddam Hussein and Hmong tribesmen who fought with American forces in the Vietnam War.

Many Jewish refugees from Russia were 70 or older when they were admitted to the United States and have had difficulty learning English, said Melanie Nezer, director of the Washington office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Some are homebound, do not know how to apply for citizenship and do not realize that help is available, Ms. Nezer said. Some, she said, have difficulty paying the application fee for naturalization, which is at least $595 and may be as high as $675.

Others likely to lose benefits include Olga Muhtarova, 79, who received asylum after coming to the United States from Uzbekistan in 1998. Her friend Gretchen Vogelzang, who helps her deal with government agencies, said: “She would love nothing more than to become a U.S. citizen. She’s making a good-faith effort to do so, taking classes in English and civics.”

But, Ms. Vogelzang said, “Olga is going to lose her S.S.I. because she got a green card last year and will not be able to apply for citizenship until 2014.”

After receiving a green card, an immigrant must ordinarily wait five years before becoming eligible for citizenship.

Another immigrant, Ajisa Suljic, fled Bosnia in 2002, having lost her husband, father and two brothers in the war there. Ms. Suljic, 52, is severely depressed and has received Supplemental Security Income because of a medical disability.

Her daughter, Munisa, said Ms. Suljic had applied for citizenship but could not afford the fee or get a waiver.

Mr. Hinkle, the spokesman for Social Security, said that refugees receiving cash assistance might qualify for an additional year of benefits if they could show that they had filed applications for citizenship with the Department of Homeland Security. He said he did not know how many applications were pending.

Congress set a time limit on assistance for refugees as part of a comprehensive welfare law adopted in 1996. The stated purpose of the restrictions was to control costs, promote self-sufficiency and ensure that “the availability of public benefits not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States.”

Lawmakers assumed that refugees who still needed help could become citizens and qualify for benefits beyond the time limit. But for many refugees that has proved impossible.

Courtesy : The New York Times/July 31, 2010