Friday, October 03, 2008

Extension of Benefits a Temporary Lifeline for Refugees

After years of public advocacy and testimonies, letter writing campaigns, and visits to elected officials, "refugees and other humanitarian immigrants" will now be able to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for at least two additional years.

The SSI Extension for Elderly and Disabled Refugees Act is effective October 1, 2008 and impacts humanitarian immigrants, refugees and others whose SSI was cut off or who were denied SSI due to the expiration of the allotted time period. Moreover, the law provides for a third year of benefits for humanitarian immigrants who have a naturalization application pending at the end of the two-year extension.

Humanitarian refugees include refugees, asylees, persons granted withholding of deportation or removal, Cuban and Haitian Entrants, Amerasians, and victims of trafficking in persons; they are one of the few groups eligible to receive SSI.

Ruben Chandrasekar, AFSC's Project Voice regional organizer in Baltimore shares, "I am particularly happy for the refugee families we have been supporting for the past years who had their SSI terminated but who never stopped struggling for a fair change and process.

One family member was also part of a class action that secured some relief for a group of humanitarian immigrants who were cut off from SSI while waiting for their citizenship applications to be processed. He was affected by the 7-year time limit but last year testified in DC – along with other AFSC Project Voice constituents. I had the good fortune of speaking with the family today.
They are quite happy that they will be able to avail themselves of SSI benefits which will help improve their quality of life as they settle into their new country. They are ready to continue advocacy efforts so that time limits for receiving SSI for humanitarian immigrants and refugees are eliminated."
Under a sunset provision in the new law the extensions of SSI eligibility expire in 2011. SSI is often the primary source of income for poor and low-income seniors and persons with disabilities. Congress placed time limits as an incentive to encourage humanitarian immigrants to move quickly and seek naturalization; however, the naturalization application process has experienced troubling delays and lengthy waits (years) for lawful permanent residency -- the prerequisite for the submission of a naturalization/citizenship application.

Still, advocacy groups continue to press for flexibility and consideration of extenuating factors. In a recent commentary, the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) noted, "While the new law will help many very vulnerable immigrants, advocates will continue to seek legislation that repeals the time limits altogether. Naturalization is unattainable for persons who cannot pass the citizenship test because of their age, disability or other factors. The United States has invited refugees to come, and has offered safe haven to other humanitarian immigrants. Our laws do not force indigent seniors or persons with disabilities who are citizens into destitution at the end of an arbitrary time period."

Individuals who have lost their SSI benefits due to the imposed time limits should contact the Social Security Administration beginning October 10, 2008 as they are still establishing policy guidelines for implementing the new law. Requests to extend SSI benefits can be facilitated by visiting the local SSA office or by calling 1-800-772-1213.

> Click here for a fact sheet on the SSI Extension (NILC).

AFSC will continue to work with partners in the nation's refugee community and urge legislators to rescind the current time limits and to keep in mind age, disability, the mental health and environmental factors that have impacted refugees in their journey for a safe haven and a new home.