Court leaves barriers to immigrant benefits


WASHINGTON, March 29 (JTA) — Jewish immigrants and refugees who entered the United States after 1996 and have yet to become citizens will continue to face problems in seeking public assistance.

The Supreme Court this week refused to hear a challenge to laws that limit welfare benefits to U.S. citizens. Jewish groups called the court’s refusal a major disappointment.

With its refusal, the Supreme Court keeps the congressional changes to the 1996 welfare reforms intact.

The changes made legal immigrants ineligible for benefits immediately. Refugees who have demonstrated a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality or social or political ties become ineligible for the benefits seven years after their arrival to the United States.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants have been affected by these changes.

Advocates for immigrants and refugees must now turn to Congress to continue attempts to restore the federal benefits.

“This all began in Congress, and the Supreme Court is saying it will have to end in Congress,” said Leonard Glickman, executive vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The link between citizenship and benefits eligibility had never been made before, Glickman said.

Refugees and immigrants may face a wait as long as two years before their application for citizenship might be approved. Before 1996 government assistance was available in the interim, but now noncitizen immigrants cannot collect food stamps or Supplemental Security Income, which recipients spend mostly on housing.

The United Jewish Communities is mostly concerned about elderly immigrants who find it difficult to pass the necessary requirements for citizenship because of their unfamiliarity with English or poor health.

Some local Jewish federations have found success by having their staff work to obtain medical waivers, provide the elderly with home tutoring programs and accompany elderly and ill immigrants and refugees to the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to advocate for them.

Diana Aviv, UJC’s vice president of public policy, called the court’s refusal a “major disappointment” and said UJC will work vigorously through Congress to change things back.

“Legal immigrants should not be treated differently than citizens,” Aviv said. “They pay taxes and they follow the laws.”

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