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For Thousands of Elderly or Disabled Refugees, the Check’s No Longer in the Mail

Several thousand impoverished elderly or disabled refugees who fled persecution in such troubled places as Afghanistan, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and Cuba lost their badly needed Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits last week. Thousands more will lose their SSI eligibility over the coming year.  A last-minute push in Congress to preserve these modest benefits failed before lawmakers left town to campaign for re-election; restoring those benefits should be high on lawmakers’ to-do list when they return to work in mid-November.

SSI provides aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income with modest monthly checks to help them meet basic needs.  Noncitizens who entered the United States after August 1996 generally can’t get SSI, but Congress has allowed very poor refugees — many of whom faced violence or torture in their home country and often arrive here with little more than the clothes on their back — to receive SSI benefits for a certain period to give them time to become citizens.

Two years ago, Congress overwhelmingly approved a law temporarily lengthening the SSI eligibility period for refugees from seven years to nine.  On October 1, the first group of up to 5,600 beneficiaries hit the nine-year limit and were cut off.  Another 5,600 may be cut off over the next 13 months as they bump up against the limit.

The assumption that elderly and disabled refugees can readily become citizens and thereby retain SSI eligibility has turned out to be mistaken, for several reasons.  Refugees generally may not even apply for citizenship until they have been in the country for five years — longer for asylees — and the application fees of $595 to $675 represent a huge amount for people living below the poverty line.

Applicants must also pass tests in English and civics — a steep hurdle for people who often had limited education in their home country and are elderly or seriously disabled.  And to become citizens, these individuals must navigate a confusing bureaucracy, often without help from an attorney or friend who is knowledgeable on these matters.

People whose benefits were due to expire on October 1 include:

  • A blind man, age 77, who spent 14 years as a political prisoner in Cuba and who did not know that he would have to seek citizenship in order to keep his SSI.
  • An elderly man from Ethiopia who received asylum in 2001 and applied for a green card promptly but didn’t receive it for six years and thus can’t apply for citizenship until 2011.  “I am 79 years old, so I can’t work,” he pleads.
  • A 101-year-old woman who was granted political asylum after fleeing Cuba and now suffers from cognitive degeneration.
  • An elderly couple who arrived from Sudan ten years ago as political asylees; they experienced long delays in obtaining green cards because of their difficulties with English and thus are not yet eligible to apply for citizenship.
  • A man from Azerbaijan who was granted asylum in 2000, suffers from schizophrenia, and won’t be eligible to apply for citizenship until 2014.

“I don’t want to complain against the United States because this country has helped me immensely, but the reality is that I may be homeless,” says one refugee threatened with loss of benefits.   There’s no good reason for letting these extremely vulnerable people face destitution.