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Jewish Groups Rally to Deal with Looming Refugee Assistance Deadline

May 25, 2004
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Jewish groups are leading a coalition to prevent refugees in the United States from losing benefits for food and housing.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society has been joined by several other Jewish groups and federations in pushing legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would extend a benefit deadline for refugees, asylees and other humanitarian immigrants who are elderly, disabled or blind.

HIAS estimates that 8,000 refugees from the former Soviet Union have lost or could lose their benefits because of a provision in the 1996 welfare reform law that capped Supplemental Security Income benefits at seven years for non-citizens who arrived in the United States after 1996.

The organization estimates that more than 950 refugees from the former Soviet Union lost benefits in 2003, and many more are expected to lose them this year. HIAS estimates that 90 percent of the FSU refugees who arrived since 1996 are Jewish.

The SSI benefits provide a cash payment of more than $500 per month for a single person and $800 for a couple. Most immigrants aren’t eligible for the aid, but refugees and other humanitarian cases are.

“For many refugees, that’s their only form of cash assistance,” said Gideon Aronoff, HIAS’ vice president for government relations and public policy. “Either the person is going to be destitute or the community will have to act.”

Current rules allow for permanent benefits for those who were receiving them before Aug. 22, 1996, or who entered the country before that date and later became blind or disabled. For residents who came after Aug. 22, 1996 or came before then but later turned 65, benefits are capped at seven years.

Refugee groups say the cap cuts off aid to a needy population and makes it almost impossible for refugees to keep their benefits.

“The Jewish community has had a strong commitment to seeing the refugees through the process until a person becomes a citizen and has a stable future in America,” Aronoff said. “The group eligible for SSI, the elderly and disabled, these are the people that need more of a hand than your average refugee.”

While it’s technically possible for refugees to get citizenship within seven years, Aronoff said that logistically it’s all but impossible.

Refugees first must become lawful permanent residents for five years before applying for citizenship. But because only 10,000 asylees receive that status each year, the backlog can extend for up to 15 years.

Those who receive permanent status must fight processing delays in the Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees immigration issues, to naturalize within a two-year window.

In addition, elderly and disabled refugees often have difficulty learning English, a requirement for citizenship.

Jewish groups are working with refugee organizations, such as Refugee Council USA and the National Immigration Law Center, on the issue. Other partners include Florida’s Cuban and Haitian communities and the Southeast Asian community.

Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the Senate when it returns next month. Aronoff said the additional funds needed for benefits already have been budgeted by the White House, a sign of support.

However, election-year politics has slowed the process. No single legislator is leading opposition to the subsidies but a number are expected to vote against them, heeding constituents who oppose federal subsidies for refugees and other non-citizens.

In the meantime, many Jewish federations are being forced to pick up the slack for community members who are not seeing the income they have come to expect. Some states have supplemented the income, but many others have not.

“We expect in many communities people will have developed close relationships with these refugees and feel a compulsion to help them when they are in need,” Aronoff said.

Right now, because only a handful of people in each community have lost benefits, stop-gap solutions are being found, such as requests for expedited citizenship. But without the extension, Aronoff said, the problem of refugees without income will be too big to handle on a case-by-case basis.

“You can’t expedite 2,000 cases,” he said.

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