Thousands of immigrants being cut off from welfare

Many noncitizens losing SSI funding, health care

April 25, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Yossif Sakirski used to enjoy painting buildings, going to parties - and having a little financial freedom, thanks to his monthly $546 Supplemental Security Income check.

The Baltimore resident doesn't paint or go to parties these days because of a painful leg injury. Worse, he is scheduled to lose his monthly checks in five months because of a quirk in U.S. immigration law - one of the thousands of immigrants throughout the nation facing a similar fate.

"At my age, to be left without any resources?" said the 71-year-old from the former Soviet Union through an interpreter. "Life has no meaning."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article Sunday, The Sun incorrectly stated that individuals cannot receive both Social Security payments and Supplemental Security Income. Individuals can get both.

Because of a change in the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, elderly and disabled refugees who arrived in the United States after Aug. 22, 1996, will lose their Supplemental Security Income checks and health care if they do not become American citizens within seven years of their arrival.

Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is available to citizens who are older than 65 or are disabled and have "limited" financial means. The program is similar to Social Security but is funded through general tax revenue, not Social Security trust funds. A person cannot receive both.

Immigrant advocates have decried the law, saying that it targets a group of legal immigrants caught in a backlog as the federal government works to process citizenship papers. Over the next four years, the federal government estimates that nearly 30,000 people like Sakirski will lose their benefits.

The Social Security Administration is unsure how many Maryland residents could be affected, said administration spokeswoman Carolyn Cheezum, but local immigrant experts estimate there are about 600.

But that estimate might be low because many refugees eligible for SSI do not speak English and may not be aware of the change.

"We're very concerned there could be more, and it could turn into an even bigger problem," said Jessica Rowe, a social worker with Jewish Family Services in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood, a group that is working with Sakirski.

Becoming a citizen is not easy for many elderly immigrants, who may have trouble learning enough U.S. history and English to pass the citizenship test. And citizenship applications can take as long as 10 years to process.

Feeling abandoned

"A lot of [refugees] are very surprised and shocked," said Dori Dinsmore, director of the Chicago chapter of World Relief, a nonprofit group that works with immigrants. "They think: `Why would the government bring us here and then abandon us?'"

The issue has drawn the attention of national leaders. President Bush has proposed extending the deadline by another year and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, has written legislation that would extend the deadline for two years. That legislation is being debated in Congress.

The proposals are a "good first step," said Dinsmore, but any changes that happen may not have any affect on Sakirski.

A native of Azerbaijan, an independent country in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, Sakirski had a quiet life in his hometown of Baku, painting buildings for a living. "I painted all the embassies in Baku," he said proudly.

He was married for a short time and had a daughter, but was divorced in the early 1960s and lost track of his wife and child. He also began to suffer from the anti-Semitism he said was common in the region.

Anti-Semitism

Once, he said, two of his co-workers undid some of the screws on his scaffolding while Sakirski was at lunch. When Sakirski returned, his scaffolding collapsed and he fell nearly 10 feet, breaking his left leg and hurting his back, he said.

Sakirski had to go to a Moscow hospital three times for treatment, he said, but was worried that another attack could occur. He said other Jews were targeted in similar ways. Sometimes, families would come home to find their apartments had been ransacked or, worse, they would discover that other people had moved in.

"I was born there, and I lived there. Of course I did not want to leave, but life forced me," he said.

Sakirski decided to immigrate to Baltimore in 1995 and was given political asylum in September 1997. He applied for a green card - a document that gives an immigrant legal status and is an important step toward obtaining citizenship - in 1998.

Citizenship

Later that year, Sakirski received a letter from the Social Security Administration, explaining that he would lose his benefits by Sept. 22 of this year unless he became a citizen. Sakirski thought he would receive citizenship relatively quickly. "I did not think America would leave me without any assistance," he said.

But Sakirski did not receive his green card until last year, and will not be eligible to become a citizen until 2008. His benefits are due to expire in September, meaning he could be without income or medical insurance for almost four years.

The thought terrifies Sakirski. Usually, he leads a calm life, enjoying Russian radio or television programs and going for short walks near his apartment on Park Heights Avenue. But these days his tranquillity has been disturbed.

`I can't sleep'

"I'm nervous, I can't sleep, I think about it all the time. I keep thinking about what I can do," Sakirski said.

Sakirski walks with a cane and goes to the hospital as many as three times a week. He takes medication for pain, arthritis, high cholesterol and to help him sleep.

Jewish Family Services say they will help Sakirski when his benefits expire and plan to offer him financial and medical assistance. "He won't be left behind," Rowe said.

Despite the prospect of such help, Sakirski remains worried about his financial future. As he walked back from a photo session, he muttered: "Maybe I can get work as a model."

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