Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In Florida, non-English speaking elderly, disabled people lose SSI benefits

From The Palm Beach Post:

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Ofelia Pimentel, 77, doesn't have words to express how worrisome the past four months have been - at least not in English.

Pimentel, a Cuban refugee, lost her $674 federal Supplemental Security Income check this summer basically because she doesn't speak English.

She is one of hundreds of elderly or disabled refugees in Florida to lose their benefits recently.

"I would love to speak the language and I have taken classes and tried to learn," she said in Spanish. "I lament not having come here earlier. I would love to communicate more and share more with Americans. But after the age of 60, it is difficult to learn a new language."

Pimentel came from Cuba in 2000. The federal benefit she received covers people who are elderly or disabled, who fled political persecution and violence in other countries and are poor. The aid lasts only several years, after which the recipients must become citizens to continue receiving aid.

Individuals seeking citizenship must pass a written and oral exam in English. The questions test language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics. People can wait until they have been in the country at least 15 years, after which they can take the test in their native language. But they cannot receive SSI benefits for that long.

Pimentel said that with help she recently wrote to President Obama, asking him to make an exception for the elderly regarding the English proficiency test. "He answered and said he sympathized with immigrants and would take steps to help us, but so far nothing has happened," she said.

"We sympathize," said Sharon Scheidhauer, regional spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "But there is nothing we can do. Those regulations are written by Congress, and only Congress can change them."

Congress has passed extensions of refugee benefits, most recently in 2008 under President Bush. But lawmakers adjourned late last month so they could campaign and didn't pass an extension.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sponsored a $22 million bill to temporarily extend the benefits. Fines collected for unemployment fraud would pay for it. Gillibrand asked the Senate for unanimous consent on the bill, but one senator blocked it.

"We had many of the most conservative senators on our side," said a Gillibrand aide, Bethany Lesser. "But one senator on the Republican side put an anonymous hold on it."

That hold caused another 850 people in Florida and more than 3,500 nationwide to lose their benefits Oct. 1, according to the Social Security Administration.

One of them, Elba Salazar, 73, is in the same situation as Pimentel. She also lives in West Palm Beach, came from Cuba in 2000 and was receiving $674 a month.

In 2005, a son of hers and his wife were killed in a car accident in Palm Beach County. She has subsequently been diagnosed with depression by doctors at Compass Health System and has been prescribed the Alzheimer's medicine Aricept for memory loss. Her condition would allow her to take the exams in Spanish if immigration officials granted her a medical waiver, but so far they haven't, she said.

"I appreciate everything this country has done for me," Salazar said.

"But for a person my age, you don't have the mental capacity to learn a language as easily as before. If I could ask for one thing, it would be to allow us to take the citizenship examination in Spanish, those of us past 60."

An additional 1,477 people in Florida and 5,625 nationwide are scheduled to lose their benefits by October 2011.

Valory Greenfield, a Florida Legal Services attorney in Miami, said withdrawing the benefits is a betrayal of the country's values.

"It is a value of this country to help those who flee persecution and seek freedom," she said. "We have told these people we would make a place for them in this country, and now we are turning our backs on them."

Across the country, many refugees and people granted political asylum who are affected come from countries that have gone through recent upheaval: Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, among others.

In South Florida, many of those affected are Cuban. One case involves a 101-year-old Cuban woman living in Miami who was granted political asylum after fleeing Cuba and now suffers from "cognitive degeneration," which precludes her from understanding the citizenship oath, another requisite. Her family has been told that another immediate family member can take it for her, but that person must first go through certain legal steps, which could take time.

Some who lost benefits have family members nearby, but advocates say those relatives are often struggling, too, and find it difficult to help.

"Every month there are going to be more people knocked off the list," said attorney Jose Fons of Greater Miami Legal Services.

The need to pass the citizenship test to receive SSI was introduced in 1996 as part of a welfare overhaul. Since it normally takes at least a year after a refugee arrives in the U.S. to become a legal permanent resident and another five years to apply for citizenship, lawmakers originally gave such individuals seven years to comply.

But because of language difficulties, government glitches that delayed citizenship applications, lack of adequate legal help, and the $595-to-$675 cost of applying for citizenship, people fell through the cracks.

So Bush extended that period by two years, which for some refugees expired Oct. 1.

Changing the rules on English proficiency for elderly refugees would help eliminate the problem for some older individuals.

Would there be great political opposition to changing them? Tim McClellan, a spokesman for the South Florida Tea Party, which has taken strong stands against amnesty for illegal immigrants, said there shouldn't be. To begin with, he noted, the people in question are here legally.

"Some people might say since they didn't pay anything into the system, they shouldn't take anything out," McClellan said. "But these are people who, if they are sent back to where they came, could get put in jail or killed. We made a promise to these people and we should fulfill it."

McClellan, 54, said he understands the older people's problems learning English. "I've been trying to learn Spanish for 10 years and still haven't been able to," he said.

The more immediate problem is getting them back their benefits. Congress will reconvene Monday.

Dinah Wiley, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, hopes the lawmakers will deal with the issue right away, but she expects that checks will not go out again until December or January. "I don't think it will be in time for Thanksgiving," she said.