Up to 4,600 impoverished elderly or disabled refugees will lose their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits on October 1, when a temporary provision of law expires. Several hundred more will lose their benefits each month thereafter. Congress should act quickly to avert the severe hardship that this small but vulnerable group will face.
SSI provides a bare-bones income — $674 a month for an individual or $1,011 for a couple, about three-fourths of the poverty level — to elderly or severely disabled people who cannot work and have little or no income and few resources.
In the 1996 welfare law, Congress generally barred future immigrants from collecting SSI but made a limited exception for refugees, asylees, Cuban-Haitian entrants, and similar victims of human-rights violations. Congress permitted those groups — who fled persecution in their home countries and typically arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs — to receive SSI benefits for a certain period (if they otherwise met the program’s strict eligibility criteria) to give them time to become citizens.
In 2008, Congress overwhelmingly passed and President Bush signed a law lengthening the SSI eligibility period for refugees from seven years to nine. But that law expires on October 1. Up to 4,600 refugees who have been here for more than seven years will fail to get their SSI check for October, and several hundred more will hit the seven-year limit each month thereafter.
Lawmakers’ assumption that elderly and disabled refugees can readily become citizens and thereby retain SSI eligibility has turned out to be over-optimistic, for several reasons. Refugees may not even apply for citizenship until they have been in the country for five years; asylees and similar groups face even longer waits (and much higher fees).
Applicants for naturalization must 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, they must navigate a confusing bureaucracy, often without help from an attorney or friend who is knowledgeable on these matters.
The affected refugees come from the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, Indochina, Iraq, Iran, Liberia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, and other troubled places. Some helped the United States in its overseas wars. Unlike most refugees, who adapt to life in the United States, join the workforce, and need only a temporary helping hand, the small number who qualify for SSI can’t support themselves.
Representatives McDermott (D-WA) and Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) have led efforts in the House to extend the nine-year rule; Senator Schumer is spearheading efforts in the Senate. A permanent fix — repealing the time limit entirely — would be the best solution. But most urgent is fast action to remedy the cutoff scheduled for October 1.