Assistance for Elderly and Disabled Refugees

By Mark Krikorian on March 22, 2007

Statement of
Mark Krikorian
Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies

Before the Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support
Committee on Ways and Means
U.S. House of Representatives

Thank you Chairman McDermott and ranking member Weller for the opportunity to speak before this subcommittee.

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act which, among other things, barred most non-citizens from receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a welfare program for low-income people who are disabled, blind or aged 65 or older.1 There was clearly a need for reform of SSI eligibility; immigrants made up nearly two-thirds of elderly SSI recipients, with elderly Chinese, in particular, often using the program after giving their assets to their children and then claiming poverty.2

Refugees are humanitarian immigrants admitted without being sponsored by a family member or employer (who would be responsible for ensuring they did not become a burden to the taxpayer), and were therefore permitted to retain their SSI eligibility for five years after arrival, later extended to seven years. The goal of these time limits was to allow refugees time to naturalize, and thus remain eligible for benefits on the same basis as any other American citizen.

And there was, in fact, a significant uptick in naturalization in response to welfare reform. In the words of one scholar, There is strong evidence that immigrants sought citizenship as a means of retaining welfare eligibility. Those immigrant groups with the heaviest welfare use rates saw the largest increases in naturalization after welfare reform, further neutralizing its potential impact."3

Heavy refugee use of SSI continues. SSI usage overall is similar between native and immigrant-headed households: in 2005, about 4 percent of native-headed households received welfare benefits through SSI, compared to 4.4 percent of immigrant-headed households (which, because of welfare reform, are almost certainly disproportionately refugees).4 This is buttressed by the data by country of origin; though the government surveys used to measure such things do not record the specific immigration status (and so cannot focus specifically on refugees), certain countries are more likely to send refugees than others, and people from those countries have high rates of SSI use. For instance, 15.4 percent of households headed by someone born in Russia, long a major source of refugees, collected SSI in 2005, the highest rate among the top-25 immigrant-sending countries. The same is true for other refugee-sending countries; 12.4 percent of Iranian-born households collect SSI, as to 9.9 percent of Cuban households, and 6.3 percent of Vietnamese households.

The proportion of new refugees who might be eligible for SSI i.e., those who are elderly or disabled cannot be determined exactly, but the Office of Immigration Statistics reports that the proportion of people over 55 years old among newly admitted refugees was 12.9 percent in 2003, 9.2 percent in 2004, and 8.7 percent in 2005.5

Immigrants who seek to naturalize whether as part of a strategy to preserve their SSI welfare eligibility or out of genuine commitment to America may find it to be a cumbersome and time-consuming process. Of course, much of the time and effort is justified and cannot be avoided; after all, the law rightly requires foreigners to meet a variety of benchmarks before being considered for admission to the American people through naturalization, including a period of continuous residence in the United States, the ability to read, write, and speak our national language, a knowledge and understanding of America's history and government, good moral character, and attachment to the principles of our Constitution.6 Foreigners who are otherwise eligible but who are elderly or have certain physical or mental impairments may be exempted from the language and history/government requirements.

In practical terms, this means filling out more forms, providing fingerprints for security and criminal background checks, being interviewed by an adjudicator, and eventually attending a swearing-in ceremony, where the candidate for citizenship declares that he will absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.

As the number of applicants for citizenship increased (because of welfare reform and because of the ongoing surge in immigration), the processing time for citizenship ballooned, in some cities taking two years from initial filing of paperwork to taking the oath of allegiance; the waits were sometimes so long that the fingerprints provided for FBI background checks would expire and have to be resubmitted.

Although this administration has not had a stellar record on immigration, it has managed to reduce the processing time for citizenship applications; in September 2006, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) declared the elimination of the naturalization backlog.7 Though one senses a mission accomplished approach to this issue by USCIS, the wait times and backlogs have indeed come down; the USCIS site shows that naturalization applications are taking about seven months to be processed in most cities, including Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York.8 This is longer than the six-month target the agency has set for itself (which is itself a pretty long time), but is nowhere near the two years that some cities had been seeing.

The question for this panel would seem to be whether it is necessary to extend the SSI eligibility period so as to prevent elderly and disabled refugees from losing access to SSI welfare benefits. Given the reduction in processing times, combined with the exemptions from certain requirements, there would not appear to be any justification for extending the SSI eligibility period for refugees beyond the current seven years; any elderly or disabled refugee who seeks citizenship, and is not disqualified due to criminal or security concerns, should be able to successfully meet the requirements for citizenship within the seven-year period. In fact, further extending the eligibility period would seem to be a disincentive to refugees to seek citizenship; at the most, it might be justified to extend the eligibility period only for those who have already applied for naturalization, in case in the future, backlogs and waiting times start to increase again.

One final thought on this topic. Whatever Congress decides to do on this specific issue of SSI eligibility for refugees, lawmakers need to keep in mind that our immigration policy is very costly to taxpayers, and the admission of refugees is inevitably the most expensive proposition of all. This is because refugees are admitted precisely because of their desperate circumstances, often having lost all their possessions or been severely traumatized, and perhaps even hailing from profoundly backward societies with no familiarity whatsoever with modern life. And we may well see a surge of refugee admissions over the next several years, with the potential resettlement in the United States of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.9

In the context of limited government resources, and given the fact that a refugee is dramatically more costly to taxpayers than any other kind of immigrant, policymakers must consider whether the costs of admitting additional refugees should be balanced by a reduction in the admission of other immigrants. To govern is to choose, and if we choose to permit humanitarian immigration (as I would argue we must, though not necessarily as it is arranged today), then we must face up to the costs and order the rest of our immigration system accordingly.

1 Supplemental Security Income Home Page,

2 See, for instance, From Jiu Ji Jin to Fu Li Jin: Some Chinese Immigrants Mistakenly See Welfare as a Fringe Benefit, by Norman Matloff, The New Democrat, November 1994,

3 The Impact of Welfare Reform on Immigrant Welfare Use, by George J. Borjas, Center for Immigration Studies Report, March 2002,

4 Immigrants at Mid-Decade: A Snapshot of America's Foreign-Born Population in 2005, by Steven A. Camarota, Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder, December 2005,

5 Refugees and Asylees: 2005, by Kelly Jefferys, Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics, May 2006,….

6 See the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) page on naturalization,


8 Check processing times here:

9 See a January 16, 2007, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on this topic,

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization in Washington, D.C. which examines the impact of immigration on the United States. The Center is animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.

Mr. Krikorian frequently testifies before Congress and has published articles in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Commentary, National Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared on 60 Minutes, Nightline, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CNN, National Public Radio and on many other television and radio programs.

Mr. Krikorian holds a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University, and spent two years at Yerevan State University in then-Soviet Armenia. Before joining the Center in February 1995, he held a variety of editorial and writing positions.