Groups in Budget Battle To Save Refugee Relief

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 18, 2005, issue of February 18, 2005.
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With congressional inaction leading to thousands of elderly refugees being cut off from their only source of income, and thousands more facing a similar prospect, a handful of Jewish organizations have launched an emergency legislative campaign.

Since late 2003, refugees have been facing the end of their Supplementary Security Income, or SSI benefits, because of a little-noticed clause in the 1996 welfare reform bill, which stipulated that refugees have seven years to become citizens before losing their federal assistance. Because of a backlog in immigration applications, the seven-year deadline has been hard for all immigrants since September 11, 2001, and particularly difficult for elderly refugees who have trouble learning English.

An emergency coordinator was hired Monday by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to document the number of refugees who have been cut off and to develop temporary solutions for them. The issue also has jumped to the top of the list of legislative priorities for the United Jewish Community’s Washington office, and three New York legal aid groups have filed a lawsuit in response to the problem.

“The ultimate goal of my job is to have it eliminated,” said Alla Shagalova, coordinator of the new HIAS program, which she has tentatively titled “Save Our Seniors.”

SSI was designed to care for the elderly and disabled who are not eligible for Social Security. Immigrant rights groups say the restrictions fall on the group least equipped to deal with them.

In his federal budget proposal submitted last week, President Bush recommended providing SSI benefits to noncitizens for an additional, eighth year. The president made a similar proposal last year, but it was lost in the legislative shuffle, leaving the seven-year barrier in place.

The Social Security Administration has not released numbers on how many refugees have been cut from the SSI roles, but preliminary numbers released last year suggest the number might be close to 7,000. Another 41,000 are slated to reach the end of their seven years by 2010. The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities estimated that 57% of these are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Others came from Africa, Southeast Asia and Bosnia.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Rep. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is planning to introduce legislation in the coming weeks, which will authorize the funding in President Bush’s budget for an extension of SSI benefits for at least one year. Similar legislation did not even make it to the floor of Congress last year, but Cardin says the growing concern for the issue could help nudge the legislation through.

“As people are hitting the deadline, there are going to be more and more faces put on these statistics,” Cardin said.

Among those who already have lost their benefits is Galina Nazarova, a 75-year-old widow, who left Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1997 because of the antisemitism she and her husband faced.

Nazarova now lives in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, and relied on SSI to pay the utility bills and the rent on her tiny one-room studio apartment — until the $652 monthly checks stopped coming in August 2004. For the first two months, the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush helped her pay rent, and since November, Nazarova has received New York State welfare — but only $352 a month, while her rent is $461.

Nazarova has jockeyed her scant resources by paying her electricity bills first and hoping that her landlord does not ask for the whole rent check. She had not bargained for this when she and her husband came to the United States.

“I thought the government would take care of me — they knew I was elderly and sick,” Nazarova said through a translator, in an unsteady voice.

Thus far, Nazarova’s landlord has not talked about evicting her. He already lowered her rent from $653 when her husband died in 2003, but it is unclear what will come next.

The New York Legal Assistance Group has joined three other pro-bono legal teams to bring the case of these immigrants before the New York Supreme Court and to demand that the state fully compensate for the assistance not provided by the federal government. The first arguments were heard February 7.

In Illinois, the Jewish federations were instrumental in lobbying the state legislature to provide an extra two years of assistance to refugees, though that program will end in 2006.

Illinois and New York, however, are among the minority of states to provide any safety net to refugees who lose their SSI, according to Shawn Fremstad, deputy director for welfare reform policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

The national scope of the problem is not well documented, and representatives at HIAS say that many Jewish communities have been slow to respond because only a few refugees in each community are facing the cutoff.

Shagalova’s first task in her new work at HIAS is to create a database of all refugees who have lost their benefits. She is also looking at how to create emergency legal programs to help refugees and those receiving asylum move through the citizenship process more quickly.

Many refugees have faced the same problems as Nazarova has in attempting to naturalize within seven years. Immigrants can apply for citizenship only after they have lived in America for five years. Nazarova applied soon after her five-year anniversary, but she is still waiting to be scheduled for an interview, and she still has to make it through a series of security checks.

To alleviate such struggles, a number of immigrant rights groups, led by HIAS, are lobbying to end the seven-year restriction.

“It’s inappropriate to have a limit in this area at all,” Fremstad said. “SSI is the only public-assistance program that places this limit — that singles out refugees.”

Nazarova, for one, is hoping for a solution quickly.

“My needs have always been very modest,” Nazarova said. “I’m old and sick, and all I want is enough to survive. Right now I’m not getting that.”

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