We’re talking about a tiny number of immigrants here, a few thousand at most, all of them very, very poor, who fled persecution and affliction and were welcomed to America as refugees and assylees. Many are quite old, or else severely disabled — like Mr. B., a 41-year-old Jewish man, who came to the United States in 2003 as a refugee from Ukraine, where his family fled from Odessa’s deep-rooted anti-Semitism. When he arrived, he was eligible for benefits from the Social Security Administration, but only for seven years, the limitation enacted as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. After that, he was supposed to apply for full citizenship.
But according to HIAS Pennsylvania, which is handling his case, Mr. B. has long-standing mental problems, including schizophrenia and depression, and the naturalization process is not something that he can manage. His wife divorced him, and his only other relative is an elderly mother with her own medical issues, so he depends on his SSI benefits to survive.
And those benefits are about to run out. A one-year extension ends September 30. President Obama included funding for another two years in the budget he sent to Congress, but at a time of high stakes brinkmanship in the debt ceiling debate, this request has understandably been lost in the bigger drama. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has promised to push for the extension once the debt ceiling is resolved, and we take her at her word.
There’s a much deeper problem here, though, that a year or two extension will not sufficiently address. How can we accept these humanitarian immigrants — Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union, Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein, Hmong tribesmen who fought for the United States in Vietnam — and then place limitations on the paltry amount of government help they receive when they are so needy, so desperate? “Why should there be a citizenship test for this population?” asked Jonathan Stein, a public interest lawyer who has championed these cases. “We invited them here.”
Indeed, we did. As Gillibrand noted in a statement to the Forward, “As Americans, we are proud to offer sanctuary for those fleeing war, violence and persecution.” Then let’s be proud to offer the poorest and most vulnerable among them a few hundred dollars a month so that they can actually survive.