Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Elderly and Disabled Refugees Face a Cut-Off of Benefits After 7 Years

Posted by Christopher Coen on September 30, 2010

The New York Times has an editorial on the issue of elderly and disabled refugees facing a cut-off of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) due to the 7 year time limit for non-citizens. Some of these elderly and disabled refugees have absolutely no chance of ever passing a citizenship test due to the need for English language skills. We have refugees who arrive here illiterate in their own language and far too old to learn a new language. Some of these elderly people have dementia and other issues. SSI is a Federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not Social Security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income. It provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is seeking a one-year extension to help 5,500 refugees who are about to lose benefits.

Thousands of elderly and disabled refugees who receive cash assistance from the Social Security Administration are in danger of losing that lifeline. Their eligibility for benefits expires on Friday. Congress has granted temporary extensions before. It needs to do so again.

The welfare overhaul adopted in 1996 set limits on the time that refugees can receive Supplemental Security Income. Noncitizens normally do not qualify for payments, but refugees, who fled torture and war and could not work because of old age and infirmity, were among those granted an exception on the condition that they become citizens within seven years. That deadline came too quickly for some who were unable to pass the citizenship test in time. Many were homebound and had trouble negotiating paperwork or affording the fees. Others were stuck in limbo because of administrative backlogs…

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is seeking a one-year extension to help 5,500 refugees who are about to be cut off. The bill is expected to cost about $22 million, and it would be more than offset by a fee collected for unemployment fraud. It would apply only to those who received benefits through the 2008 extension; new refugees must still meet the seven-year deadline. Read more here

A Bhutanese refugee suggested to me that the U.S. government should enact a rule for refugees with disabilities from the neck up versus those from the head down. In other words, to allow elderly refugees with dementia and other refugees with mental illness or developmental disabilities to avoid the time limit for benefits imposed on non-citizens. A medical specialist would decide who qualified for the exception. I don’t know if there is a diagnostic tool that is useful for determining which elderly and disabled people are cognitively capable of learning English. Of course there is also the financial barrier of affording the $595 naturalization fees, although waivers are available for people unable to afford the fees. Then there is the issue of refugees with physical disabilities that interfere with travel to and attendence at English classes.

**CORRECTION** – The 7-year limit for refugees listed above was actually a 9-year limit, due to the US Congress passing a rule in 2008 (set to expire Sept. 30, 2011) giving qualifying refugees 9-years of SSI if they were noncitizens. See Herald-Leader article:

…Congress extended the deadline once in 2008 so that refugees could  receive assistance for up to nine years before becoming citizens. But  that extension expires Sept. 30 [2011]… Read more here

**UPDATE** – Effort to extend eligibility fails

An article in the Washington Independent says that the Senate rejected the effort to pass the measure yesterday.

…Yesterday, the Senate considered a measure to extend eligibility for Supplemental Security …Income for some of the neediest refugees. It came up for unanimous consent, but failed to pass in the final hours of the session…

Groups say they plan to continue to lobby in the lame duck session and next year for Congress to eliminate limits on SSI eligibility for refugees.

Although efforts to extend SSI payments have not encountered serious opposition — the extension in 2008 earned bipartisan support — rights groups have had trouble getting it added to the legislative calendar. “We don’t really hear opposition, we just have difficulty getting support,” Wiley says. Read more here

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