A hollow promise?

May 03, 2004

AN ESTIMATED 30,000 elderly and disabled refugees who have entered this country since August 1996 will lose their financial support unless Congress acts to protect them.

The Supplemental Security Income benefit they rely on will expire unless they become American citizens - but after 9/11, bureaucratic delays in the already arduous naturalization process will prevent many from meeting their deadline to do so.

The law says that they must become citizens within seven years of entering the country on asylum, as refugees or as humanitarian immigrants. But through no fault of their own, many cannot: It's taking up to 10 years and sometimes more to clear all the hurdles in many cases.

It's unrealistic to expect them to simply get a job; many who would like to work are living in legal limbo. Invited to take sanctuary in America because they were persecuted by their governments or ravaged by war, some, not surprisingly, have physical or mental disabilities that make it difficult for them to work. Many are elderly. Even after obtaining green cards and starting the process of learning English, they face a long road to assimilation in America.

There's an obvious solution: In fact, on Friday, the in-transition U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced fee increases to help raise money to clear its backlogs, a monumental task that administration officials pledge to complete by 2006. But that's a long-term solution, likely to come too late to help Yossif Sakirski of Baltimore, a 71-year-old from the former Soviet Union whose plight was recently chronicled in The Sun, and the others who will lose their monthly checks in the coming months.

Unable to expedite their cases, the administration and Congress should extend the benefit. President Bush's proposed 2005 budget would fund an extra year of assistance for refugees receiving SSI. Still, that would leave behind Mr. Sakirski and others who have been falling off the rolls since 2003. So Maryland Congressman Benjamin L. Cardin and colleagues have proposed amending the 1996 welfare reform act to reinstate them, and extend the benefit two years.

The SSI benefit is often the linchpin of other benefits, including Medicaid, so losing it in some states can trigger a chain reaction leaving a family desperate, says Dori Dinsmore of World Relief, a nonprofit that aids immigrants. If the federal government doesn't solve a problem it helped create, the burden falls to states and communities - and that's not right.

It would cost federal taxpayers roughly $217 million to $400 million over five years to extend the benefit, depending on which of the current proposals Congress approved. That's a small price to pay to maintain this nation's image as the bosom of freedom for the world's poor, tired, hungry and abused, and to support their transformation into American citizens.

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