Refugees Sue Over Benefits Cutoff

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 29, 2006, issue of December 29, 2006.

A group of elderly and disabled refugees are suing the federal government for cutting off their Social Security benefits.

For the past three years, a little-noticed provision from the 1997 welfare reform bill has meant that disabled and elderly refugees who do not receive citizenship within seven years of arriving in America are stripped of their Social Security benefits — often their sole means of income.

So far 6,000 refugees have lost their benefits and it is expected that 46,000 more will lose them by 2012. Community Legal Services of Philadelphia brought the suit on behalf of refugees who already have lost their benefits.

The argument advanced by activists is that when the government took in elderly and disabled refugees, it knew that these people would need assistance. In addition, activists say that the seven-year deadline is an arbitrary reason to deny the benefits to refugees.

In court, the legal aid groups are arguing that the cutoff violates the refugees’ Fifth Amendment right of equal protection. The government agencies named in the suit are asked to drop the restriction.

The named plaintiffs include a blind Ethiopian democracy activist and an Iranian dissident with a severely retarded 17-year-old son. The lead plaintiff, Shmuel Kaplan, is an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor from Russia who was granted asylum in 1997 and lost his benefits in 2004.

All the plaintiffs have been attempting to receive citizenship but have been slowed down by the clogged post-September 11 processing system. Even before the September 11 attacks, refugees were not able to begin applying for citizenship until they were in the country for five years, providing a narrow window to beat the seven-year cutoff. In the case of Kaplan, the lead plaintiff, the government delayed his green card processing, preventing him from filing a citizenship application until late 2007.

Given that many of the refugees facing the cutoff are Jewish asylum seekers from the former Soviet Union, one of the primary advocates for ending the seven-year restriction has been the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Philadelphia office of HIAS helped file the lawsuit. The national office has pushed for change at the legislative level. This past fall, HIAS brought together 300 organizations to sign a letter to Congress urging change.

In 2004 the Senate considered extending the Social Security benefits for an additional year, but the measure did not attract enough attention and support to come up for a vote.



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