As states implement the new welfare law, one of the major concerns is the impending loss of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for elderly and disabled immigrants and the loss of eligibility for Medicaid. To mobilize around this issue, a coalition of advocacy groups has organized a 100-day countdown to the termination of benefits in August, beginning April 23. The 100-day countdown will feature public events around the country. In a recent audio conference sponsored by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington, DC, Ann Morse of the State and Local Coalition on Immigration for the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Yolanda Vera of the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, discussed issues relating to immigrants and the welfare law. Jodie Levin-Epstein of CLASP moderated the conference.
Levin-Epstein: The cuts in the social safety net for legal immigrants account for a major part of savings in welfare bill signed into law last summer. What did these cuts amount to?
Morse: About 44% of federal savings from the welfare bill derived from cutting safety net programs to legal immigrants. Mostly, the savings are from instituting a bar on the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides a small monthly cash grant to individuals who are aged, blind and disabled. The other savings derive from Medicaid cuts and food stamp cuts.
What the law does is implement a permanent bar for all immigrants to receiving food stamps and SSI until they become naturalized citizens, or until they complete 40 quarters of work. There are exemptions for refugees, asylees, and those granted withholding of deportation, but they can receive benefits only for their first five years in the country.
Levin-Epstein: The cost savings may be cost savings to the federal government, but, really, they amount to cost shifts to state and local governments.
Morse: You’re exactly right. States are really concerned that they’re taking care of a population that has no other source of support. With the SSI program, 45% of non-citizen recipients have no place else to turn. They have no other source of income, their sponsors cannot take care of them. They’re going to end up on the state and local safety net programs. Clearly, there’s a lot of involvement by governors, state legislators, mayors, county officials across the country trying to work with their delegation to Congress to see where they can restore some of these cuts.
Levin-Epstein: There’s a public understanding that about 500,000 might experience a cut of SSI, but aren’t there some new numbers that raise this estimate?
Morse: The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that 500,000 would lose SSI benefits for a federal savings of $13.3 billion over three years. This number includes an estimated 58,000 elderly asylees or refugees on SSI who will be losing their benefits because they’ve already been in the country for more than five years. SSA recently went back and revised their data base. Their best estimate, after allowing for those who naturalize, or who will meet other exemptions under the law, is that 400,000 people are likely to lose their benefits. But there is a second group of people who applied to the Social Security Administration (SSA) before 1978 for whom there is no citizenship application. An example would be a 90-year-old SSI recipient who may have to go back to the state or county to find 1907 birth records if he or she does not have other verifications of being born in this country. Those recipients could potentially lose benefits even if they’re citizens. It’s going to take the SSA and the states a considerable time to go through and redetermine these 715,000 people for their possible allowance to receive benefits, or whether they’ll be disallowed.
Levin-Epstein: When do the SSI provisions go into effect?
Vera: Aug. 22, 1997. The SSA is dividing folks into SSI number groupings and sending out two waves of notices. The first wave was sent out beginning Feb. 3 and staggered over the next eight weeks. What the notices essentially say is that folks have 90 days to show that they have become a citizen or meet one of exemptions. If can’t establish to SSA that they meet one of the exemptions, then SSA will send out a second wave of notices. Those notices are termination notices.
Our office developed materials on advising people on what they can do to to protect their due process rights and what are the benefits and potential risks of requesting hearings. One thing that is important for people to know is that if they think the termination of benefits is incorrect and they request a hearing, they can continue to get SSI benefits until SSA reconsiders its decision to terminate benefits.
Levin-Epstein: From a cost-benefit perspective, should state welfare agencies try to help immigrant groups pursue SSI in order to maximize federal SSI dollars?
Vera: I think it’s a great idea. We’ve been exploring this with various county agencies that realize this is a big potential loss of federal dollars to their agencies and that it’s in their interests to maximize federal funds by, to the extent reasonable, encouraging people to try to maintain eligibility for SSI.
People are exploring ways of working in concert with legal services offices to help people needing assistance with appeals. Outreach materials are being created so that people can understand what their appeal rights are, with special attention to SSI recipients who are vulnerable because they’re in nursing homes and don’t have means to comprehend written notices, or don’t have language ability to understand a notice written in English to them.
Levin-Epstein: Could you touch briefly on the requirement for 40 working quarters in order to qualify for benefits?
Vera: In a nutshell, people are exempt who have some kind of work history. They’ve worked 40 work quarters either through their own work or through their spouse’s work or parent’s work. You can count your spouse’s work as long as you are still married and the work of your parents when you were under 18.
Levin-Epstein: Can parents use quarters from their children?
Vera: Unfortunately, there is nothing within the statute that would allow that. The only two exceptions are for the spouses and the parents to be credited to the child and not the other way around.
Certain immigrants are having a hard time proving that they meet this exemption because, oftentimes, when taxes are reported, people aren’t certain what last name to use. There’s a lot of confusion on which name is the last name particularly for Latino immigrants and Asian immigrants.
Levin-Epstein: As a Levin-Epstein I can relate.
Vera: Another problem is unreported income. For example, in one case I’m familiar with, a man worked for 12 years at a car wash and when he went to see how many work quarters he had he was only credited for seven of those years. His employer, through no fault of his own, wasn’t reporting the income and the taxes. So it’s complicated for many of our clients and they will need some assistance to establish that they, indeed, have worked these quarters.
Levin-Epstein: Only five states, California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois account for most of the legal immigrant population. Why is this an issue for other states?
Morse: It’s a myth that immigration is a five-state issue. There is also a second tier of states that has a significant immigrant or refugee population, such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota , Virginia, Washington and Maryland that you often don’t think of. New Jersey now has as many immigrants as Illinois. Finally, the welfare bill affects every state in county because of its administrative requirement.
Levin-Epstein: What is the administrative burden?
Morse:The new law requires states to test every single applicant’s citizenship and immigration status. This law would now affect every single means-tested program that’s provided at the state and federal level. Caseworkers will have to determine their citizenship, determine various immigration statuses and what’s been called a dizzying array of different eligibility categories under the new law. This could require them to create new forms, train their workers, update their manuals, reprogram their computers, possibly purchase new equipment or information systems.
Levin-Epstein: What about state legislation to provide assistance where the federal government has decided to be absent? Are any state bills pending, any initiatives moving forward?
Morse: It’s still a bit early in the legislative season for good estimates. Most states are in session until the end of June. A very few states, another eight states or so, are in session all year long.
Washington State has introduced a fairly comprehensive bill that would grandfather current immigrants who are losing assistance at the federal level, allowing those who are losing SSI benefits to be eligible for the state general assistance program. State general assistance programs where they exist, tend to be at half of the level of federal benefit, so it’s still not going to protect fully those immigrants losing assistance.
States are still trying to do an assessment of the numbers of immigrants in their states that are affected and the kind of dollars that might be involved. Florida has introduced a bill that would allow immigrants in naturalization process to continue receiving Medicaid SSI or food-stamp benefits and also protect those over 65. Colorado has an pension fund available to everyone in the state, no matter whether you’re a citizen or an immigrant. Texas is considering giving one-time grants to those who lose assistance.
Levin-Epstein: We all know there is an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) backlog. What exactly is that waiting period and what do you need to do to become naturalized?
Vera: There are eight basic requirements to naturalize. You have to be a lawful permanent resident, show good moral character, show you have a basic understanding of English, and be able to pass a test on U.S. history and government. You’ve have to have made the U.S. your home for at least five years, although that period can be shortened if you’re married to a U.S. citizen, be least 18 years old and believe in the principles of the constitution, and take an oath of loyalty.
The wait, not surprisingly, has dramatically increased since passage of the welfare act because, for the first time, people realize that they’re going to have to naturalize as a condition of remaining or establishing eligibility to many of these programs. Before the welfare law went into effect, it took approximately six months to go through the entire naturalization process. Now the waits in many areas have jumped to 1-1/2 years. So for many legal immigrants who are threatened with termination of SSI, they simply can’t naturalize in time to beat the August 22 deadline.
Levin-Epstein: What are some state initiatives targeting the naturalization issue?
Morse: Most states are really concerned about elderly immigrants losing SSI and not being able to receive any benefits. We’re seeing a lot of states targeting programs for this population and providing state monies directly for naturalization and information on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Maryland started this kind of assistance in 1995, when they realized that 7.3% of their population is foreign-born. The citizenship promotion program provides a small amount of funding for community organizations to educate immigrants and help them with the application process. New Jersey added a new twist by providing state money to be matched by private funds.
Vera: Some people are lobbying hard to get more staffing with INS to deal with the backlog. We’ve seen the importance of full INS staffing in the past. In 1994, in San Francisco, there was a 480-day delay for naturalizing. Once INS put efforts into trying to bring that backlog down and dedicated personnel, the average processing time dropped to about 180 days.
For an audiotape of the full conference, and a complete list of upcoming conferences, contact CLASP at 202-328-5140.