House Must Act to Restore Vital SSI Lifeline for Refugees

By McIntyre, Gerald | Aging Today, May/June 2012 | Go to article overview

House Must Act to Restore Vital SSI Lifeline for Refugees


McIntyre, Gerald, Aging Today


On September 30, 2011, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits came to an end for up to 4,600 refugees, asylees and similar immigrants admitted to the United States on humanitarian grounds. Most of those affected are older than the general SSI population, and many are unable to learn English or complete the naturalization process. With each passing month, more and more of this vulnerable group, almost all of whom are unable to return home, lose the only income they have.

Returning to their country of origin is not an option for this population because most suffered persecution there. Some had their lives threatened or their family members were killed or tortured. Still others have been persecuted for their religious beliefs, for their political views or because they belong to a disfavored ethnic group.

SSI provides minimal income support to 8 million people, all of them at least 65 years old or unable to work because of severe disability. Although in most of the country SSI only provides enough money to bring an individual's total monthly income up to a meager $698 a month, it is the only means of survival available to most people receiving it.

Efforts to Extend SSI Eligibility

The Social Security Act limits SSI eligibility for humanitarian immigrants who have not naturalized to seven years from the date they obtained their status. Legislation enacted in 2008 and signed by President George W. Bush extended the eligibility period for two more years under certain conditions, for a total of nine years, with a third year added if a naturalization petition was pending. However, the 2008 legislation was a temporary measure and came to an end on September 30,2011.

Immigration Catch 22

Originally, there was no time limit on SSI eligibility for this population. However, a seven-year time limit was established in the 1990s under the belief that this would allow sufficient time for those affected to naturalize. While large numbers were able to naturalize during this time period, there are many for whom this has proved impossible.

In particular, those who are already of advanced age when they arrive in this country are likely to have great difficulty learning English and passing the citizenship exam. Yet, although they have been here too long to continue receiving SSI, they have not been here long enough to qualify for a waiver of the English language requirement. In the case of some humanitarian immigrants, their immigration status does not permit them to file a citizenship application soon enough to be able to naturalize within seven years. …

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