Some elderly and disabled refugees will soon lose SSI

New York Times editorial suggests removing time limits for naturalization


Vulnerable Refugees, Losing a Lifeline

In less than two months, unless Congress acts quickly, thousands of refugees who fled for their lives from places like Iran, Cuba, Russia, Somalia and Vietnam — and who are now elderly, disabled and poor — are about to learn the cold limits of compassion.

As part of its welfare overhaul in 1996, Congress placed a five-year limit on the time that refugees could receive benefits that vulnerable citizens receive, like Supplemental Security Income, cash assistance to the elderly and the severely disabled. This was supposed to be ample time for people to become citizens, to continue their eligibility for aid, but it quickly became clear that that was a mistake. For a host of reasons — old age, infirmity, poverty, the difficulty of learning English, on top of backlogs, crushing paperwork and high administrative fees — thousands of people would be unable to meet the deadline.

The deadline was lengthened in 1997 to seven years. In 2008, at the urging of President George W. Bush and with bipartisan support, Congress provided another two-year respite. But nobody in the current Congress has stepped up to fix the problem again, and on Oct. 1, about 3,800 refugees will reach the end of their lifeline. The letters are already going out.

As advocates for refugees explain, those affected by the looming deadline are not like other immigrants, and are unusually vulnerable. They did not come here for jobs. They are all by definition survivors of persecution, torture or warfare. Some were targets of Saddam Hussein, others victims of sex trafficking. Many have no relatives here. Some are homebound, and were already past 70 when they arrived, too late to learn English, highly unlikely to complete the years-long path to gaining citizenship. They are all old, ill or disabled, and the country that welcomed them is the only benefactor they have.

The amounts that these refugees receive are not large — no more than $674 a month for an individual and $1,011 a month for a couple. If any shreds of bipartisanship still exist in Washington, along with the belief that the United States should remain a true haven for those fleeing persecution, then Congress and President Obama will renew their support for a bill to extend benefits to elderly and disabled refugees. In time, they should adopt the permanent solution: finally delinking naturalization and artificial time limits from the granting of lifesaving assistance to these refugees.