The conservative "welfare reform" law enacted in 1996 is most commonly associated with the block granting of means-tested income support for extremely low-income parents and children (the program formerly known as AFDC and now as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF), a move that has rendered it largely ineffectual during the current recession. But the law also included some especially harsh restrictions on most means-tested social insurance benefits for immigrants, including basic disability benefits like Social Security Income (SSI) and basic health benefits like Medicaid. What's particularly notable about these restrictions is that they applied not only to undocumented immigrants (who were already ineligible for nearly all forms of public assistance) but also to many immigrants who were lawfully residing in the United States.
Perhaps the cruelest cut was a provision that rendered refugees and other humanitarian immigrants who have fled persecution, often including violence and torture, in their home countries ineligible for SSI after the had lived in the United States for seven years. Under the law, refugees can regain eligibility by obtaining U.S. citizenship, but as a story in yesterday's Miami Herald reports, some 4,000 refugees haven't been able to obtain citizenship within the timeframe, and are scheduled to lose SSI on October 1. Another 37,000 refugees could lose SSI over the next 10 years.
One fix involves giving refugees more time to obtain citizenship, an approach first put forward by the last Bush Administration, and adopted temporarily in 2008, when Congress approved a two-year extension for most refugees facing the cutoff. However, as the Herald's story shows, this approach hasn't worked for many elderly or disabled immigrants.
Instead, Congress and the Obama Administration should eliminate the SSI citizenship requirement altogether for elderly or disabled refugees. Refugees, like other legal immigrants and all citizens, pay taxes, are subject to all state and federal laws, and can be required to serve in the U.S. military. Moreover, making subsistence benefits contingent on naturalization incentivizes (and effectively compels) naturalization for the wrong reason (a financial one) rather than the right ones (loyalty and the desire to participate politically in the United States by exercising the one other benefit that is contingent on citizenship, the right to vote in U.S. elections).