Embracing the Exiles

By Jonathan M. Stein and Gideon Aronoff

Published October 20, 2006, issue of October 20, 2006.
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Shmuel Kaplan, an 80-year-old amputee, breathed a sigh of relief in 1997 when the United States granted him political asylum after he fled antisemitism in the former Soviet Union. Two years later, we similarly received an Iranian boy, Rouzbeh Aliaghaei, and his parents. His mother was a high school teacher who had been imprisoned and twice fired for decrying the treatment of women and their lack of freedom. Nine-year-old Rouzbeh understood little about his family’s flight — he is afflicted with a rare genetic disorder resulting in profound mental retardation.

Ever lifting the lamp of freedom “beside the golden door,” in poet Emma Lazarus’s famous phrase, America welcomed these immigrants on humanitarian grounds, fulfilling our obligation to provide safe harbor to victims of persecution. Because of their severe disabilities, the impoverished Shmuel and Rouzbeh qualified for Medicaid health insurance and the special support of $603 a month through Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the same safety net available to permanently disabled American citizens at the poverty level.

But now Shmuel and Rouzbeh are in crisis: Their SSI has been yanked away. Still unable to support themselves, they have hit the end of a seven-year SSI time limit. In an unprecedented departure from federal policies toward refugees, as part of the 1996 welfare reform law the federal government restricted SSI benefits to refugees to their first seven years in the country.

This policy has proved to be disastrous for Shmuel, Rouzbeh and thousands like them, for a variety of reasons. Established in the pre-9/11 era, the cut-off limit was based on the assumption that seven years was ample time for refugees receiving SSI to become citizens, and thus able to continue receiving SSI benefits. The 1996 law also mandated that all other newly arriving legal immigrants eligible for SSI as elderly or disabled would be restricted access to it until they became American citizens. In retrospect, the 1996 legislation has yielded unexpected results in the post-9/11 era. To naturalize, one must first obtain permanent resident status. Rouzbeh’s parents, for example, applied at the earliest time possible; nevertheless, it took five years for them to receive their green cards, granting them status as legal permanent residents. The naturalization process then necessitates the refugee to exhaust a five-year permanent residence requirement.

Thereafter, even the most determined applicant faces further processing delays — there is now a backlog of almost one million naturalization applications at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, primarily due to name and security checks. For Shmuel and Rouzbeh, as with many other disabled and elderly refugees, their mental impairments and age present further obstacles to naturalization. Six thousand refugees already have been terminated from SSI. If federal law is not adjusted to present realities, 40,000 more terminations are projected.

Linking SSI eligibility to citizenship for disabled refugees is fundamentally flawed. A bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommended against its linkage as a debasement of citizenship, reasoning that we should not make deprivation the incentive to naturalize. As well, long-standing federal immigration policy recognizes that refugees often must escape with no assets and no relatives here to support them. As a consequence, our laws have long exempted refugees — in contrast to other potential immigrants — from exclusion on “public charge” grounds and from requirements that they have “affidavits of support” from legally responsible sponsors.

Refugees affected by the cut-off include Russian Jews who were persecuted for their religion, Catholics fleeing violence in Indonesia, Iraqi Kurds who escaped Saddam Hussein’s wrath, Cubans who fled the Castro regime and Hmong who fought on the side of the United States during the Vietnam War. Most refugees in the United States are employed and self-sufficient. A minority of refugees, however, suffer disabling physical and mental impairments. Like American citizens, they need the assistance of SSI and Medicaid to sustain their lives.

An extension of SSI is supported in principle by the White House as well as by a bipartisan group of legislators sponsoring bills in the Senate and House (S. 667 and H.R. 899). Yet these measures have not been treated as priorities. They need to be passed this year before Congress adjourns for the year. And even better, Congress should enact legislation that would provide full access to SSI for disabled refugees.

The “Mother of Exiles” is Emma Lazarus’s metaphor for the Statue of Liberty — and, by extension, the United States itself. The phrase embodies the long-standing ideal of our nation to embrace the “tempest-tossed.” As a compassionate country, America should not be terminating SSI for its disabled and aged refugees.

Jonathan M. Stein is general counsel at Community Legal Services, Inc., in Philadelphia. Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York

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