Written Comments Submitted to the
Subcommittee on Income Security and Family
Committee on Ways and Means
“Assistance for Elderly and Disabled
Refugees” – March 22, 2007
On behalf of:
Gideon Aronoff, President and CEO
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
For more information, please contact:
Assistant Director, HIAS DC
2020 K St. NW, Suite 7700
Washington, DC 20006
Through its mission of rescue, reunion, and resettlement, HIAS has provided lifesaving services to world Jewry for more than 125 years. As an expression of Jewish tradition and values, HIAS also responds to the needs of other migrants who are threatened and oppressed.
Since its founding in 1881 by Jewish immigrants who found sanctuary in the United States after fleeing persecution in Europe, HIAS has assisted more than four and a half million people in their quest for freedom, helping them start new lives in the United States, Israel, Canada, Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and other countries around the world. As the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the United States, HIAS has played a key role in the rescue and relocation of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Jews from Arab and communist countries, more than 380,000 Jewish refugees from Iran and the former Soviet Union, and refugees of all faiths fleeing persecution in Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, and other dangerous places. HIAS works with an extensive network of local Jewish agencies across the country to resettle refugees from the Former Soviet Union, Iran, and other areas of conflict around the world.
Jews from the former Soviet Union are more affected by the limits on SSI than any other previous refugee group because the large wave of Russian Jewish emigration to the U.S. in the 1990s was demographically the oldest in U.S. history. This wave of Russian Jewish emigration happened to coincide with the 1996 adoption in the welfare reform law that conditioned the receipt of Supplemental Security Income (―SSI‖) benefits for the disabled, blind and elderly on achieving citizenship within the first seven years of entry into the country after August 22, 1996.
In response to this growing crisis, over the past decade HIAS has advocated that Congress repeal the seven year time-limit entirely, thereby de-linking naturalization from SSI eligibility for humanitarian immigrants. Basing eligibility for assistance on citizenship debases citizenship and puts many elderly and disabled refugees in financial dire straits, leaving them with no safety net. We encourage immigrants to become citizens in order to participate fully in the civic life of the country, not because the alternative is the serious economic hardship that may result if benefits are lost or unavailable. The United States admits refugees with the promise of security and protection against the dangerous situations they encounter in their home countries. Yet for many elderly refugees, we are breaking that promise after seven years simply because they cannot learn English or get through the citizenship process quickly enough. Without SSI and facing extreme destitution, refugees are even less likely to make it through the naturalization process given their overriding concerns of how they will afford food and housing. Only by eliminating the time limit will the United States fulfill its promise to this most vulnerable and deserving population.
SSI Benefits and Refugees
Since 1974, the U.S. government has provided low-income elderly, blind, and disabled individuals with financial support through the SSI program. It was not until 1996, when Congress passed and President Clinton signed sweeping welfare and immigration
legislation, that lawful immigration status served to restrict the access of low-income disabled or elderly individuals to SSI and other welfare benefits. Though some restorations passed in subsequent years, SSI remains the only federal means tested public benefit program that cuts off refugees after seven years unless they become citizens.
SSI provides monthly income support to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter to low income individuals who are 65 or over, disabled, or blind. In most states, beneficiaries also qualify for Medicaid to pay for hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, and other health costs. Currently, individual SSI beneficiaries receive monthly payments of $623 and married couples receive $934.
In contrast to Social Security benefits, SSI eligibility is not based on prior work history. It is available only to those who both meet a poverty means test and are completely unable to work because of age or disability. A person is defined in federal law as ―disabled‖ for purposes of SSI benefits if he or she is ―unable to engage in any substantial gainful employment as a result of a medically determinable impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted, or can be expected to last, for a continuous period of at least 12 months.‖
When Congress passed the 1996 legislation terminating access to public welfare benefits for non-citizens, it clearly considered that the United States had a continuing obligation to assist certain classes of non-citizens. Reflected in the 1996 welfare reform legislation is the idea that some non-citizens – including humanitarian immigrants who flee
persecution and are offered sanctuary in the U.S., or who serve in the U.S. military, or who participate in the U.S. work force for a significant length of time – merit special
consideration when it comes to public support such as through receipt of SSI benefits.
The obligation of insuring equal treatment of non-citizen refugees by providing SSI income support benefits to refugees and asylees in the 1996 welfare legislation is reflected in the international treaty the United States has adopted. This treaty provides under the article entitled ―Public relief‖: ―The Contracting States 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.‖ Article 23 of the 1954 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (―Convention‖). Under the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 19 U.S.T. 6223, 606 U.N.T.S. 267, a treaty entered into force for the United States on November 1, 1968 (see Treaties in Force 2006, p. 507), the Parties undertook to apply articles 2 through 24 of the 1954 Convention.
Refugees and other humanitarian immigrants comprise 10 percent or less of the annual legal immigrant admissions. Included in the groups of refugees and related humanitarian immigrants are Russian Jews and other religious minorities who fled the Former Soviet Union, Iraqi Kurds fleeing persecution under the Saddam Hussein regime, Cubans fleeing the Castro regime, Hmong immigrants from the highlands of Laos who served on the side of the U.S. military during the Vietnam war, persecuted minorities in Somalia, and persons from various regions of the former Yugoslavia displaced by the Balkan wars.
Refugees and asylees arrive in the United States with considerably greater challenges to self-sufficiency than other classes of immigrants. The U.S. government grants refugees and asylees permission to reside in the U.S. based solely on the determination that they have been the victims of persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution in their native countries due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group.
Many refugees arrive with no financial resources, no documentation of professional qualifications or past achievements, little social support, and physical or mental health problems – often severe – related to the trauma they have suffered.
The law recognizes that refugees and asylees often arrive alone and have no family members in the U.S. Unlike other immigrants, while refugees and asylees are eligible to receive time-limited support from the government in partnership with refugee resettlement agencies, they are not required to have a permanent sponsor (such as a family member) who is legally obligated to assist them if they cannot provide for their own support.
The federal government has acknowledged the unique challenges faced by refugees and asylees by establishing a comprehensive system of assistance for their initial resettlement into the United States. Because the goal of the refugee program is early economic self-sufficiency, these benefits are generally available for a limited amount of time after the refugee’s arrival, and are provided for the purpose of helping a refugee to become acclimated to life in the U.S.
The federal government’s involvement in refugee resettlement efforts began in the period following World War II. Over the years, Congress and private organizations have funded a variety of programs to help newly arriving refugees adjust to life in the United States. In 1980, the Refugee Act (Refugee Act of 1980, Pub. L. No. 96-212) formalized the national refugee assistance system, marshalling the resources and expertise of public and private agencies into an ongoing program now commonly known as the Refugee Resettlement Program.
The Refugee Resettlement Program demonstrates a unique and profound commitment to this group of non-citizens by Congress, the federal government, and private agencies and individuals. It also confirms the recognition by all involved that refugees – as victims of
persecution and as people who have been forced to flee their homelands – are different
from other immigrants.
Many refugees are able to rebuild their lives in America with minimal assistance. In fact, the employment rate for refugees is only slightly lower than that of the U.S. population. Furthermore, refugee use of all types of public benefits has declined significantly. The percentage of refugees receiving public benefits is similar to that of U.S. citizens. Even receipt of SSI, which is only available to the most vulnerable refugees, declined from 13.4% of refugees in 1994 to 9.2% in 1999.
Despite the fact that most refugees will ultimately be able to support themselves and their families without relying on public assistance, refugees who are elderly or disabled (often because of the extreme trauma they have suffered) may never be able to provide for their own means of support. For these refugees, SSI is a lifeline.
Barriers to Naturalization
Naturalization is one way that immigrants can gain full participation in U.S. society. For refugees and asylees particularly, U.S. citizenship can be a validation that they have been fully and completely accepted by the U.S. and can finally leave their ―home‖ country – a
place of hostility and suffering – behind.
While naturalization is a challenging process for many immigrants, it can be particularly daunting for elderly and disabled refugees. There are two types of barriers that stand in refugees’ pathway to citizenship: (1) the inability to pass the citizenship examination, often because of physical and mental disabilities, low educational levels, and lack of access to naturalization outreach and education programs; (2) lengthy processing times of both naturalization and legal permanent residence (the required first step towards naturalization) applications caused by immigration service backlogs, security reviews, and service errors.
Applicants for naturalization must demonstrate that they have knowledge of written and spoken English and pass an exam in U.S. history and civics. Applicants who are over age 55 and have been in the U.S. for 15 years and applicants over age 50 who have been in the U.S. for 20 years are exempted from the English language requirement and can take the civics and history examination in their native language. However, these exemptions are not helpful for disabled or elderly refugees who rely on SSI benefits, as these refugees must naturalize within seven years of admission if they are to be continuously eligible for SSI.
Disabled naturalization applicants can request a waiver of the English language and/or the U.S. history and civics exam requirements. In order to qualify, a doctor must confirm that the applicant has a physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments that renders the applicant unable to learn English and/or the required U.S. history and government material. This waiver process is complex and can add a significant amount of time to the naturalization process, reducing further the likelihood that a disabled refugee will be able to naturalize within seven years. These problems are exacerbated for the most extremely disabled individuals (such as those who are completely homebound), who may not be able to access the help they need to begin the process of preparing and submitting the naturalization and disability waiver application.
Elderly and disabled refugees who manage to complete the citizenship exam are faced with immigration processing delays that can make it impossible to achieve citizenship within seven years. As a result, many of these ―almost citizen‖ refugees lose their SSI benefits.
Refugees must have five years of legal permanent resident (―LPR‖) status before they become eligible to apply for naturalization. For refugees, LPR status is considered to begin on the date of arrival in the U.S. Asylee LPR status is deemed to begin one year before the date their application for legal permanent residence is granted. Practically speaking, refugees have a two-year window during which they must apply for naturalization, complete the naturalization examination and interview, clear all required security checks, and take the oath of citizenship if they are to receive their SSI benefits without interruption.
Asylees have faced even greater delays in becoming citizens in part because they have faced a 10,000-per-year cap of those eligible to achieve LPR status. This cap resulted in a waiting list of approximately 180,000 asylees waiting for green cards, with those at the end of the line scheduled to wait 18 years to be eligible to apply for citizenship. Before the annual cap was finally repealed by the REAL ID Act of May 11, 2005, USCIS failed to utilize even the 10,000 adjustment ―slots‖ to provide the maximum access to LPR status for asylees. This failure and resulting backlog was the subject of earlier litigation that was settled in favor of the asylees in Ngwanyia v. Gonzalez, 376 F. Supp. 2d 923, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13942 (D. Minn. July 12, 2005) (court approval of settlement), but the ensuing delays have meant that in fact it has been impossible for asylees receiving SSI to naturalize within the seven year period.
Since USCIS assumed the immigration service functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in March 2003, processing times for naturalization applications have generally decreased across the country. However, mostly because of lengthy security check delays, the naturalization process can still take years from the time the application is filed to the time the applicant takes the oath of citizenship.
Significantly contributing to naturalization processing delays are government background checks, which are conducted to ensure that people who have criminal backgrounds or who present a security risk to the U.S. do not receive legal permission to enter or remain in the country. While background checks have been a part of immigration processing for many years, these checks, also known as security clearances, have intensified since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The requirements for more thorough screening of applicants for immigration benefits have added significantly to the workload of U.S. immigration officials, and in many cases have delayed the issuance of immigration benefits including naturalization. As a result, some applicants who pose no risk to the United States must wait for months or, in some cases, even years for their security checks to be completed.
Announcements by USCIS that they have diminished the backlogs and processing times for naturalization applications must also be carefully scrutinized. In September 2006, USCIS announced that the naturalization backlog had been reduced to five months, eliminating the backlog. However, in its new analysis of 1.1 million pending cases, USCIS excluded from counting approximately 960,000 cases, or 87% of the backlog, that it considers to be out of its control, such as those awaiting scheduling of a judicial oath ceremony and those pending an FBI name check. Also, in April 2006, USCIS announced
that, in order to preclude lawsuits being filed by applicants when their cases have been pending for more than 120 days after the naturalization interview is conducted, USCIS has stopped scheduling interviews for applicants until their fingerprints and FBI name checks have cleared. Thus, applicants whose cases are pending with the FBI now face even longer delays and do not have the recourse of filing a lawsuit.
Refugees Who Lose SSI Suffer Irreparable Harm
Included among the typical refugee cases of loss of SSI of those who have not naturalized within seven years of admission to the U.S that HIAS has seen is a 77 year-old widower who came to the Florida as a refugee from Ukraine, applied for citizenship soon after he became eligible, but waited two years to be called in for a naturalization interview by USCIS. During those two years, he lost his SSI. He lived in housing provided by a Jewish charity, which waived his monthly rent after he lost his SSI, but barely survived on $109 in food stamps and his Medicare each month. Florida, unlike some other states, does not offer welfare or any other form of monetary support for adults who do not qualify for SSI. The man’s only child, a son, was killed by a suicide bombing aboard a
bus in Israel, and he had no family in the U.S. who could support him financially.
In another typical case, a husband and wife that arrived in Connecticut after leaving Russia as refugees lost their SSI because they were unable to naturalize within seven years. The husband, who has been a deaf-mute since age five, was 79 years old when he lost his SSI. Because of Russia’s failure to educate individuals with disabilities, the man never learned to read or write. The wife was 81 years old when she lost her SSI and suffers from severe heart disease. Both submitted requests for a medical waiver of the English and civics requirements for naturalization, which remained pending even after they lost their SSI.
The Jewish Community Response
The American Jewish community has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to ensuring that Jewish arrivals to the United States receive support if and when they need it. Jewish community action in response to the loss of SSI has ranged from English and citizenship training and naturalization application assistance; to garnering community resources to try to keep those who have lost their benefits from becoming hungry or homeless; to advocacy for restoring benefits at the local, state, and national levels. Although charitable efforts can be helpful, sufficient resources are unavailable to help all those losing SSI benefits under the seven year policy.
Predicting the serious problems that would come to pass after welfare reform was adopted in1996, HIAS developed a series of initiatives aimed at helping people—
particularly in the Russian-speaking community—to naturalize. Despite HIAS’ extensive
efforts since the 1990s to preempt the looming problem, in 2003 considerable numbers of refugees around the country, who had been unable to naturalize and had fallen through the cracks because of language barriers, ill health or bureaucratic delays, began losing
their SSI benefits. In the years 2003 and 2004, according to the Social Security Administration, close to 3,000 non-citizen refugees and asylees were terminated from SSI.
In 2005, HIAS launched the National SSI Initiative, with staff dedicated exclusively to assessing the nationwide scope of the SSI problem, providing data to HIAS’ Washington, DC office to support ongoing efforts to achieve legislative change, providing naturalization assistance to individuals, producing citizenship and training materials, and developing a national network of professionals to provide pro bono assistance in preparing naturalization applications for needy refugees.