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April 01, 2004

Protecting SSI Benefits for Elderly and Disabled Refugees

by Barbara Weiner

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in Disability Law News , a publication of the Greater Upstate Law Project, in March 2004. It is reprinted courtesy of the organization and the author.

After being subjected to unspeakable brutality in Somalia, an elderly man seeks refuge in the United States. He enters the country in early 1996, penniless and haunted by the horrors he has experienced, and settles in Washington, D.C. He is sixty-five. Learning English is difficult. Starting over is almost impossible. However, as a senior “citizen” and a refugee, he is eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, modest payments that help him cover his rent and living expenses.

Seven years have passed and he now faces terror of a different kind in his adopted country—a future of homelessness and hunger. Why? His SSI benefits have stopped coming. He is one of the many elderly refugees who have fallen victim to the 1996 federal welfare reform provisions. Because he began to receive his SSI benefits after August 22, 1996, the date that Congress radically changed the benefits rules for immigrants, his eligiblity is limited to seven years. Since he did not naturalize in those seven years nor accrue a substantial work history in the Social Security system, both of which would have made him eligible to keep his SSI benefits, he is now without the income that supported him these past seven years.

For this Somali resident of Washington, D.C., whose story was originally chronicaled in The Washington Post, there may be a solution. Although he did not begin to receive SSI benefits until after Congress enacted the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation, he was already living in the United States before then. Perhaps with the help of an advocate, he can regain his SSI payments benefits if he can prove that he is now disabled. The 1996 welfare law allows lawfully residing immigrants, including refugees, to qualify for SSI if they can show that they are disabled. Thus, if he can prove that he is disabled and not “just” elderly, he will be able to get his SSI benefits back.

A bleaker picture faces those refugees, asylees, and other humanitarian-based immigrants who entered the United States on or after August 22, 1996. Regardless of whether they are receiving SSI funds because they are elderly or disabled, they become ineligible for benefits after seven years unless they have become citizens or can be credited with forty work quarters in the Social Security system. Recent Social Security Administration (SSA) data shows that over 5,000 elderly and disabled refugees and asylees in New York alone are at risk of losing their benefits within the next four years because of this rule.

Even in the best of circumstances, obtaining citizenship within seven years is very difficult because of the substantial processing backlogs at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). Those backlogs have been greatly excacerbated by the security measures enacted after September 11. However, most disabled and elderly refugees face additional hurdles on the path to naturalization. For them, learning English and passing the civics test may pose an insurmountable barrier to U.S. citizenship, on which their eligibility to retain their SSI benefits hinges.

There is no protection against this looming tragedy other than congressional action to remove the seven-year time limit, as was done with the food stamp program two years ago. Congress seems to be taking a step in this direction. In both houses, legislators have introduced or shortly will have introduce bills that would extend the SSI benefit eligibility time period from seven to nine years for refugees and other humanitarian-based immigrants. Although this falls short of the goal of total repeal of the time limit—the only real solution for the many elderly and disabled refugees who will never be able to make the transition from immigrant to citizen—it would protect the thousands currently facing the loss of benefits. It would also provide the time to mobilize for a more permanent solution.

Resources to Help Elderly Refugees

In New York, several groups are working to challenge the SSA procedure that terminates the SSI benefits of elderly refugees and asylees who arrived in the United States before 1996 without first providing them with an opportunity to prove disability. Resource people include the following:
• Valerie Bogart, Selfhelp Community Services, [email protected]
• Katie Kelleher, New York Legal Aid Society, [email protected]
• Ken Stephens, New York Legal Aid Society, [email protected]
The GULP Web site includes a reference guide on noncitizen benefit eligibility questions. See, click “Immigrants’ Rights,” click “Access to Benefits.”

Barbara Weiner

Barbara Weiner is a staff attorney with the Greater Upstate Law Project, Inc. (GULP). She specializes in poverty law issues. GULP is a nonprofit legal resource center providing technical assistance to local legal services pro - grams and other community groups in New York State. The organization works on a broad range of legal matters, including civil rights, disability, domestic violence, housing, health care, and public benefits issues.