October 17, 2011

Senate Democrats Announce Agreement with GOP’s Paul to Extend Expired Benefits for Elderly and Disabled Refugees

Refugees Allowed Into America on Humanitarian Grounds Lost Disability Benefits Last Month Under Bipartisan Agreement, Disability Benefits Will be Extended for One Year And Refugee Program Will Undergo Independent Audit Senate Expected To Clear Measure Later Today; House Action Awaits

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, leading Senate Democrats announced a bipartisan agreement has been reached with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) that will grant one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations—elderly and disabled refugees—a one-year extension of their Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Roughly 5,600 elderly and disabled refugees who have been granted legal status in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds saw their SSI benefits expire on September 30th.

With Paul’s hold now lifted, the benefits extension was set to clear the Senate by voice vote late Monday. It will require action in the House in order to be sent to the President’s desk. 

The bill, drafted by U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, is co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy, Kirsten Gillibrand, Robert Menendez, Al Franken, and Amy Klobuchar. 

“We are glad to reach a bipartisan agreement to extend this assistance to disabled refugees. Now it is time for the House to act so these individuals don’t have to wait any longer. This measure does the right thing for a vulnerable population and reduces the deficit to boot,” said Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee. 

“Refugees who receive SSI benefits are among the most vulnerable members of our society,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.  “They came to the United States fleeing persecution, and were welcomed here as a part of our long tradition of protecting refugees.  Now, because of age or disability, they need the kind of assistance that the United States, as a champion of humanitarian aid, has sought to provide.  I am proud to support this bill and believe it is the right thing to do.” 

“As Americans, we are proud to offer sanctuary for those fleeing war, violence, and persecution,” Senator Gillibrand said. “Extending this aid would help protect our nation’s most impoverished and vulnerable groups, providing a lifeline for elderly and disabled refugees.”  

As part of the agreement with Paul, Schumer will convene an oversight hearing on the refugee program in the Senate Immigration Subcommittee before the end of the calendar year.  At this hearing, Senator Paul will testify—in addition to witnesses from the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement--to discuss what each of these departments is doing to prevent terrorists from entering the United States or receiving taxpayer funds as part of the refugee program.  Schumer and Paul will also be submitting a letter to the Inspectors General for the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, asking them to conduct an investigation regarding how two alleged terrorists from Bowling Green, Ky., were able to gain admission into the United States through the refugee program and procure government benefits.  

SSI is a federal assistance program designed to provide resources to aged, blind, or disabled people who have limited assets with which to support themselves. This monthly benefit program is a critical lifeline for thousands of people across the country, including refugees who have been welcomed into the United States. With the passage of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in the mid-1990s, refugees receiving SSI were required to become U.S. citizens within 7 years or risk losing their benefits. In a small number of cases, some immigrants given refugee status are unable to complete citizenship requirements due to age or disability. In the past, Congress has granted an extension to this small population of SSI receiving refugees. Congress last extended the program in 2008 with an expiration of September 30th 2010. 

A refugee is defined as a person outside of his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in particular social group or political opinions. The U.S. refugee system has long been the world’s gold standard, accepting 80,000 refugees every year. Some of the refugees have aided American troops overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan often risking their lives for America’s cause. 

In the past, the government has extended the length of time that these infirmed refugees could receive SSI benefits and today’s expected Senate action ensures that tradition will continue. The first extension of the SSI program for elderly or disabled refugees was passed under President Bush with broad bipartisan support. The measure passed by the Senate today is largely similar to the Bush extension, ensuring that the benefits will be extended for a year and, for the first time, ensuing that the benefits are fully paid for. 

The measure is paid for through a $30 Diversity Visa Fee that will be paid by applicants for that visa. Beyond ensuring that the program does not add to the nation’s deficit, the fee will also serve as a deterrent for those who see the Diversity Visa program as a vehicle for fraud. In the past, there have been instances where fraudulent applications were submitted by a third party on behalf of a diversity visa applicant with the sole intent of extorting the wining applicant once the application was accepted. Under the extension just passed, any excess funds collected from the Diversity Visa Fee will go towards deficit reduction. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has projected that this bill will reduce the deficit by $24 million.