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SSI Coverage for Refugees Lapses as Extension Ends

Refugees who flee their countries' persecution and abuse for the United States are generally better off, physically and emotionally. Yet it is often an ongoing struggle to survive financially in their new country. This problem was made worse last week as a two-year Supplemental Security Income (SSI) extension, created to ensure that elderly and disabled refugees would continue to receive SSI, lapsed.

Normally, non-citizens are not able to receive any form of Social Security, but the U.S. has long made an exception for refugees. The neediest - the elderly, blind, or disabled, with less than $2,000 - were able to receive SSI payments under a program that was set to expire in 2008. That year, Congress extended refugee SSI eligibility, and as the 2008 extension's expiration grew closer, the Senate considered a measure to extend eligibility. However, the bill failed to pass unanimously last week, and the session ended without an extension. As a result, 3,800 refugees lost SSI coverage.

Without the program, refugees are not able to receive SSI until they become U.S. citizens. Legal residents must wait at least five years to apply for citizenship, when they must pay application fees, including a $595 naturalization fee, and know some English. However, there are waivers for the poor, elderly, and disabled, in light of the increased difficulties those groups may have in learning English and paying the application fees.

Advocates say that refugees are often unaware of these loopholes, resulting in an expiration of their SSI coverage. 'These are people who don't always have access to help," said Melanie Nezer, Senior Director for U.S. Programs and Advocacy for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. "If they could reach us, we could help them, but these are people who don't even know where to start."

The $22 million extension considered last week would have been fully funded by a fee collected for unemployment fraud. Now, advocates say the costs will get passed on to state governments, many of which are already stretched thin. "Refugees are shifted to state and local governments if their health care takes place in the emergency room or their income support comes from state programs," said Sheri Steisel of the National Conference for State Legislatures. "We believe the federal government has a responsibility to live up to the decision they made in deciding who is a refugee."

Resource: The Washington Independent, "Safety Net Support for Disabled Refugees Lapses on Congressional Inaction", Elise Foley, 30 September 2010

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