CHN: SSI Extension for Refugees and Asylees in Sight

On August 1, after months of delays and to advocates’ great relief the Senate passed H.R. 2608, a bill that extends Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for two years for qualified refugees and asylum seekers. The Senate passed the bill unanimously by voice vote before adjourning for its August recess. H.R. 2608 had been stalled in the Senate since it passed the House last summer.
Currently, refugees, asylees and other “humanitarian” immigrants are only eligible to receive SSI benefits for seven years. When Congress instituted this time limit it believed seven years would give these individuals sufficient time to become citizens and thereby have the opportunity to maintain their benefits. However, processing delays and other obstacles in the immigration system have made it nearly impossible for people to naturalize within the seven year time period. As a result thousands of elderly humanitarian immigrants and persons with disabilities have lost their SSI benefits, which for many is their basic means of support.  The Social Security Administration estimates that by the end of 2008 more than 30,000 elderly and disabled refugees will have lost their benefits and more than 19,000 are projected to lose their benefits in the coming years.

Fortunately, with the passage of H.R. 2608 in the Senate these extremely vulnerable populations are one step closer to receiving limited relief. H.R. 2608 extends the period for SSI benefits to nine years for refugees and asylum seekers, including people whose benefits have recently expired. The bill also gives refugees who are awaiting a decision on a pending citizenship application an extra year of SSI benefits. The bill is paid for by a provision that allows the government to deduct from taxpayers’ refund checks debts they might owe the state for unemployment benefit fraud.

There are some slight differences between the House- and Senate-passed bills that need to be reconciled. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) amended the bill to make some technical changes and to include a provision requiring refugees to provide additional assurances that they are working towards citizenship. Advocates hope Congress will reconcile the differences quickly when Members return in September. If they do there is a good chance the bill will become law this year since President Bush has expressed support for extending SSI benefits.

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