More on Elderly Refugees Losing SSI

Report from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Thousands of Poor Refugees Face Loss of SSI Benefits
Lawmakers Should Act to Preserve Lifeline for Vulnerable Group

Read the full report here:

Here are some highlights:

The people who will be affected by this cutoff are impoverished elderly or disabled refugees who fled persecution in other countries, cannot work, and have few other supports and resources. Congress should act quickly to avert the severe hardship that this small but vulnerable group would face. Lawmakers should also consider going beyond temporary stopgap measures and adopting permanent legislation that recognizes these refugees’ unique circumstances.

... the assumption that elderly and disabled refugees on SSI can readily naturalize has turned out to be mistaken. They face application fees of $595 to $675, a huge amount for an individual living below the poverty line; this is roughly an entire month’s income for an SSI recipient. (USCIS has discretionary authority to waive those fees, but its instructions are not standardized and may require voluminous documentation.

In addition, applicants must pass tests in English and civics — a steep hurdle for people who are frail elderly individuals or seriously disabled, especially given the limited availability of free, accessible classes. There are limited exemptions to the English-language requirement and an accompanying option to take the civics test in the applicant’s native language, but only for older immigrants who have resided in the United States for at least 15 years, an accommodation that does not help refugees facing the loss of SSI.

To naturalize, these individuals also must navigate a confusing bureaucracy and are lucky if they receive help from a legal-aid attorney, advocacy organization, or concerned friend who is knowledgeable on these matters. Some mistakenly fear they will be deported if they start the process and are found to be a “public charge.”

Furthermore, even when there are no other obstacles, many individuals who have been granted asylum status find it impossible to become naturalized citizens in a timely fashion. There is no numerical limit on grants of asylum, which average about 25,000 a year, but until 2005, only 10,000 a year were permitted to convert to permanent resident (or “green card”) status. Although that cap was repealed in the REAL ID Act of 2005, USCIS is still working through the backlog of applications for adjustment of status. These processing delays matter, because asylees cannot naturalize until five years after they receive permanent-resident status (which is “backdated” by one year from the date it is granted).

The most urgent need is to avoid the imminent cutoff of benefits during fiscal year 2011...A more permanent solution would allow qualified refugees and other humanitarian immigrants to receive SSI without a time limit. That action would spare a vulnerable and deserving group of people from destitution, reduce workloads at SSA and USCIS, and bring the United States into harmony with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which provides that “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.

The refugees who face the loss of SSI benefits are elderly or have serious disabilities, have been exiled from their homelands, and are extremely poor. Congress should act promptly to avert unnecessary suffering.