America's most wanted welfare plan Immigrants walk off the boat and onto SSI disablitiy rolls

January 24, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

They came in a huddled mass, tired, poor and yearning to breathe free. Then, they saw the ads.

"You are disabled, mental disabled, having serious sickness or being wounded, you may be eligible," proclaimed one offer in a Cambodian newspaper in Santa Ana, Calif.

"Free counseling," said another in Beverly Hills. "Client will only pay after receiving money."

And again in San Jose: "We are professionals on SSI -- with 85% successfulness!"

Through such ads, thousands of immigrants have stepped onto U.S. soil in recent years and found their way to hucksters, con men and entrepreneuring social workers who steered them onto a federal welfare program for the disabled called Supplemental Security Income. Without working so much as a day, the new arrivals begin collecting $458 a month.

In just five years, their numbers on the SSI rolls have doubled to more than 700,000 -- making them the second-fastest growing group in a Social Security program originally intended for poor Americans too old or disabled to support themselves.

In 1994 alone, their monthly payments absorbed almost $4 billion in taxes -- enough to buy a four-year education at Harvard University for every graduating high school senior in the Maryland public school system.

And more are on their way from such places as Mexico, Vietnam and Russia as an immigration boom almost unprecedented in U.S. history continues.

Now, the new Republican majority in Congress is gunning for them. Spurred by the mounting voter outrage that led California to cut off services to illegal aliens in November, the GOP is expected to call later this week for deep cuts in disability aid to noncitizens.

"It's time for them to live up to the commitments they made when they came to this country," said Sen. Rick Santorum of Pittsburgh, a former Republican representative who parlayed promises to purge the foreigners into a successful Senate campaign. "We cannot allow ourselves to become the dumping ground for the world's problems."

But records make clear that Congress is largely responsible for the problem. It triggered the surge by inviting thousands of mentally ill refugees into the United States and allowing them onto SSI just as it was passing the most generous mental disability rules in history.

As a result, more than 1 million "mentally disabled" people came onto the rolls. And mental problems became the No. 1 claim of those seeking aid -- citizens and noncitizens alike.

Records show that immigrants came onto the rolls for mental disabilities at a faster rate than any other group except children, demonstrating the combined effects of open-handed immigration policies and relaxed rules on mental disability.

Today, Social Security pays out more than $25 billion to 6.3 million disabled and elderly people. One out of every eight is a legal alien or refugee. Of the disabled, one out of every three is getting checks for a psychological problem.

These two facts are closely related. Behind them is the story of a 24-year immigrant boom that caught Social Security unaware, the rise of America's disability culture and how they were both promoted by Congress. And it might not have been told at all if not for a man named Simardy McNeil Chan.

A 33-year-old San Diego County social worker, he ran a cottage industry from the front seat of his gray BMW 318i sedan helping Southeast Asian refugees scam money from Social Security.

For a fee of $2,700, he led able-bodied aliens into a federal office building in San Diego, took them before Social Security caseworkers and fabricated harrowing tales of wartime suffering that he claimed left his clients too traumatized to hold a job.

He had been able to do this for seven years, he boasted to a group of potential clients last year, because few of the agency's caseworkers could speak foreign languages well enough to question immigrants directly.

"Not to worry," he assured them. "They are Americans. We are Cambodians."

Posing as a translator, Chan did all the talking. He then steered his clients to psychologists who -- citing the mental disability rules passed by Congress -- confirmed that they were mentally ill and couldn't work. Social Security would then begin mailing them monthly payments.

In this manner, Chan once boasted, he had no trouble getting checks for 2,000 of his countrymen, a population that would cost U.S. taxpayers more than $10 million a year.

He had no way of knowing that three of his customers were undercover informants for the California attorney general's office that his sales pitch was being recorded by hidden microphones.

Caught red-handed, Chan was convicted last year of lying to caseworkers to get his clients government aid.

In exchange for a lenient sentence, he agreed to help state agents "sting" doctors, druggists and psychologists running "disability mills" for Southeast Asian refugees in Southern California. One Vietnamese doctor and another Cambodian translator have been indicted so far.

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