Senators Gordon H. Smith (R-OR) and Herb Kohl (D-WI) were successful in passing legislation today to allow for an additional two years of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits eligibility for refugees and other humanitarian immigrants. The legislation was approved in the Senate by unanimous consent.
"We cannot turn our back on the most vulnerable political asylees or refugees who are seeking safety in this great country of ours," said Senator Smith. "Many of these individuals are elderly who fled persecution or torture in their home countries. They include Jews fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union, Iraqi Kurds who fled the Saddam Hussein regime, Cubans and Hmong people from the highlands of Laos who served on the side of the United States military during the Vietnam War. They are elderly and unable to work, and have become reliant on their SSI benefits as their primary income. To penalize them because of delays encountered through the bureaucratic process is unjust and inappropriate."
"As Americans who respect the rights and dignity of all individuals, we cannot shun those who have been victimized by authoritarian governments and politically volatile situations when they seek political asylum in our nation," Kohl said. "The most vulnerable of these individuals - those with disabilities and the elderly - deserve this extension of modest assistance to help them settle into their new lives in the United States. In Wisconsin, where nearly 70,000 current and former refugees live - many of whom have fled unthinkable horrors - this change represents a step forward in providing a more realistic time frame for making the critical transition of resettlement."
The SSI program provides subsistence assistance to cover the basic necessities of elderly and disabled individuals with little or no other income. Congress modified the SSI program to include a seven-year time limit on eligibility for refugees, asylees and other humanitarian immigrants. The seven-year policy was intended to provide adequate time for individuals to become citizens and thus retain benefits. Due to processing delays and other bureaucratic problems, the process often takes longer than seven years, leaving thousands of elderly and disabled refugees and others without this essential lifeline.
The Social Security Administration has projected by the end of 2008 more than 30,000 elderly and disabled refugees will have lost their benefits and more than 19,000 are projected to lose their benefits in the coming years.