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Some Elderly and Disabled Refugees Will Lose SSI Benefits

Barbara Weiner January 01, 2004

A Washington Post article presents a wrenching account of an elderly Somali refugee who was subjected to unspeakable brutality in the country he fled eight years earlier and now faces terror of a different sort in the country that gave him refuge. What lies before him is a future of homelessness and hunger. The SSI benefits that helped him to pay his rent and to cover the other costs of his modest life since he came to this country terminated a year ago. He is one of the many elderly refugees who have fallen victim to the 1996 federal welfare reform provisions.

Initially, when he entered the U.S. elderly, penniless and haunted by the horrors he experienced, he received SSI because he was 65 years old. After seven years he, like many other refugees and asylees in similar circumstances, lost his SSI benefits because:

  • he had not become a citizen in the past seven years, a lengthy process often difficult for people like him, who are elderly and have been unable to learn English;
  • he has not earned 40 qualifying quarters of credit in the Social Security system, which would be difficult, if not impossible, for a refugee like him, who was already elderly when he came into the country, and
  • he was apparently unable to persuade the Social Security Administration (SSA) that he is not only elderly but also disabled and therefore entitled, like all other immigrants who resided lawfully in the U.S. before August 22, 1996, to receive SSI disability benefits.

An even 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 because they are elderly or because they are disabled, they become ineligible for benefits seven years after entering the U.S. unless they have become citizens or can be credited with 40 qualifying quarters.

Recent SSA data shows that, within the next four years, over 5,000 elderly and disabled New Yorkers who came to this country as refugees since 1996, or with similar humanitarian based immigration statuses, will lose their benefits because of this rule. There seems to be no solution for this looming tragedy, other than to persuade Congress to amend the law, much like the food stamp law was amended two years ago. A provision of the 2002 Food Stamp Reauthorization Act eliminated the time-limited eligibility for food stamps for refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants and others whose status is based on persecution.

However, for the Somali resident of Washington D.C. whose story was chronicled in the Washington Post, there may be a solution. With the help of advocates, he should be able to regain his SSI benefits. If he can show that he is now disabled, he will be eligible for SSI disability benefits like all other immigrants with a qualifying status who were lawfully residing in the U.S. before August 22, 1996.

In New York, several groups are working to challenge the SSA procedure that terminates the SSI benefits of elderly refugees and asylees who were here before 1996 without first providing an opportunity for the recipient to show that he or she is disabled. Anyone with clients in this situation should get in touch with Valerie Bogart at Selfhelp Community Services, or Katie Kelleher or Ken Stephens of the New York Legal Aid Society.

Thanks to Barbara Weiner, GULP’s immigration specialist, for the information in this article.
The Empire Justice Center/Fordham Benefits Guide is a handy reference for non citizen benefit eligibility questions.