Senator Murray Introduces Bill to Prevent Benefits Gap for Elderly Refugees and Refugees with Disabilities

(Washington, D.C.) Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, introduced new legislation to ensure elderly refugees and other refugees with disabilities who are in the process of applying for American citizenship remain eligible for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits they are entitled to, in spite of delays at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). While generally immigrants with legal status are not eligible for SSI benefits, refugees, asylees, and other humanitarian immigrants are allowed to receive SSI during their first seven years of residency while they are applying for American citizenship. The Protecting Benefits for Elderly Refugees and Refugees with Disabilities During COVID-19 Act of 2020 would extend the eligibility period for SSI benefits for these individuals through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“SSI benefits are an essential lifeline to thousands of elderly refugees and refugees with disabilities who fled persecution, torture, and other horrors from around the globe to make a home here in the United States,” said Senator Murray. “Terminating this critical support and leaving these individuals out in the cold—in the middle of a pandemic—undermines public health and basic decency, and I’m going to do everything I can to fix this oversight in Congress’ next relief package.”

Continued delays in USCIS processing times—which have been exacerbated, in part, due to the on-going pandemic—have caused delays that have left many refugees with naturalization applications pending for longer than seven years. Accordingly, many refugees and asylees, who are elderly or who have a disability and are waiting to become American citizens, have already seen their SSI benefits terminated, and thousands more will soon: as of 2019, there were an estimated 46,000 refugees, asylum seekers, and other humanitarian immigrants nationwide who receive SSI benefits.

The loss of these benefits can be devastating; the current maximum monthly Federal SSI benefit still only reaches 75% of the Federal Poverty Level, and for many elderly refugees and refugees with disabilities, it is their only source of income. Moreover, the termination of SSI benefits may cause some to lose Medicaid coverage—which could be particularly harmful in the middle of a global public health emergency. In 2011, Congress temporarily extended the statutory cap to accommodate for similar application processing delays at USCIS. Without additional, urgent Congressional action to respond to the current backlog, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who are eligible for U.S. citizenship could see their benefits terminated at a time when they are needed most.

“It is unfortunate that federal law places time limits on how long people with disabilities or who are elderly and who have been granted humanitarian protection are able to receive crucial economic support.  But it is particularly egregious that they would be deprived of these benefits because of the pandemic and due to circumstances beyond their control.  We are therefore grateful to Senator Murray for leading this effort to provide temporary protection to thousands of individuals around the country as we work to achieve long-term solutions to these issues,” said Jorge L. Baron, Executive Director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Read the text of the bill HERE.