On September 30, in a rush to leave town, Congress missed a deadline to extend Supplemental Security Income for up to 5,600 refugees who are elderly or have permanent disabilities. Congress’ failure to extend this vital cash assistance resulted in dire consequences for many women and men who lost their only means of subsistence.
This crisis was unnecessary. When Congress recessed, an uncontroversial extension bill had been cleared by numerous fiscally conservative Republicans. Led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and six co-sponsors, the measure had nearly worked its way through the Senate’s unanimous consent process. With the deadline passed, wrenching stories of newly impoverished refugees are already flowing in. Congress must make it a priority to rectify these harms when it reconvenes in November.
Supplemental Security Income provides cash support to citizens who are elderly or permanently disabled and who have no other income. The maximum amount of federal support is $674 per month. This modest amount provides a measure of dignity by enabling individuals to pay for low-cost housing and other basic expenses, thereby avoiding complete indigence.
In addition to citizens, refugees who are seniors or who have permanent disabilities may also receive Supplemental Security Income but only for a defined duration of time. The limited time period was intended to provide sufficient opportunity for these refugees to become naturalized citizens. The refugees who lost assistance on September 30 are a discrete group of people who have faced insurmountable difficulties obtaining citizenship despite all their efforts. In some cases, this is due to government delays in processing their naturalization applications. In other cases, the infirmities of old age and disability hinder their ability to pass the language and civics tests. In virtually all cases, the high fees required to apply for citizenship pose an initial barrier: the total fees are equivalent to the maximum monthly federal grant on which individuals on SSI are expected to meet all their living expenses.
Whose lives are at stake? Refugees and asylees, by definition, fled persecution, often through imprisonment and torture. Those who lost their federal Supplemental Security Income on September 30 include:
A 78- year-old Montanan who left Ukraine after years of being persecuted for practicing Christianity. He has been blind since birth and his health took a sharp downturn last year after suffering a stroke. The modest support he has received from Supplemental Security Income enabled him to rent an apartment, which he now stands to lose.