HIAS Fights To Extend Welfare Benefits for Indigent, Non-Citizen Refugees

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 11, 2010, issue of August 20, 2010.
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A 78-year-old Atlanta woman who has been living in the United States for nearly a decade is mulling a return to her native Kazakhstan — now that her access to a benefits program on which she and thousands of other indigent refugees rely is slated to expire.

The woman, who asked to be identified by only her first name, Valentina, out of concern for her privacy, said the program is one of her only sources of income. Without it, she said, she’s not sure how she’ll pay the rent.

Some 3,800 refugees, rendered unable to work because of age or disability, are at risk of losing their monthly government welfare payments September 30. More than one-third of these immigrants — who have refugee status but not American citizenship — are thought to be from the former Soviet Union. The majority of them are Jewish.

“These are truly the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” said Mark Hetfield, senior vice president for policy and programs at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which is lobbying to maintain refugees’ benefits. They were welcomed as refugees, Hetfield said, but “when they get too old and sick to work, the rug is pulled out from under them.”

The payments, which total $674 per month for a single person and $1,011 for a couple, are disbursed under the Supplemental Security Income program, administered by the Social Security Administration. The program, which will remain available to naturalized citizens, is intended to provide supplemental income for the elderly and the disabled.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, better known as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, placed a time limit on how long non-naturalized refugees and recipients of asylum could receive benefits through the program. The time limit was initially set at five years, then extended twice.

The refugees who could lose their benefits at the end of September are eligible for a one-year extension if they are in the process of applying for citizenship. Most of the refugees whose benefits are set to expire come from Cuba or the FSU, according to Hetfield.

Valentina, whose benefits don’t expire until January 2011, said that her poor health and glaucoma have prevented her from taking the citizenship test. Her poor command of English has also been a problem. “It’s hard to demand from old people to learn a new language after 70,” she told the Forward through a translator. She said that she stopped studying for her citizenship exam after the 2008 death of her husband, who was Jewish.

Jewish organizations have worked since the 1990s to earn citizenship for Russian-Jewish immigrants, and most Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union are naturalized and able to benefit from SSI as citizens, Hetfield said.

“Those who will be cut off on September 30 of this year would include those who could not learn English or civics well enough to pass the naturalization test,” but who did not qualify for a waiver based on medical disability, Hetfield said.

HIAS signed a letter alongside 20 other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in April that was sent to Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer, asking him to support legislation that removes the time limits on SSI eligibility for noncitizen refugees.

Schumer’s office and the office of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, also of New York, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the office of Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose district includes the heavily Russian-speaking Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach. But Hetfield said in an e-mail that Schumer has “taken an active interest and demonstrated leadership in solving this problem.”

As the clock winds down toward September 30, Hetfield said, HIAS’s focus is on securing another extension of the time limit on the program. He said that the effort is currently suffering from a lack of Republican support.

The offices of Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and Senate minority leader, and Rep. John Boehner, Republican of Ohio and House minority leader, did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House has yet to take action. “The administration has been monitoring this issue very closely and talking with stakeholders and members of Congress to develop an appropriate response,” said Kenneth Baer, communications director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s not a huge number of people” that would be affected by a failure to extend the benefits, Hetfield said, “but it would be a tragedy.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com

Maia Efrem contributed reporting to this story.

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