October 2007

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Shmul Kaplan (behind cake) surrounded by supporters shortly after being sworn in as an American citizen by the Federal judge on the left.

Citizenship: A Life Line For One Refugee
Thousands more still waiting.

-- Sarah Peterson

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, Shmul Kaplan, a disabled 80 year old Ukrainian World War II veteran got his chance to become a United States citizen in a special interview and ceremony held at his home, Galilee Village, Levittown, Pennsylvania. He waited 10 years to realize his dream.

Shmul Kaplan was granted asylum in 1997 based on the continuing Anti-Semitism he faced in the Ukraine. Kaplan is an amputee and wheel chair bound. At age 18, he lost one of his legs due to a train accident and his other leg was badly injured. Because of his status as an asylee, age and disabilities, he was eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) which provided $590 in cash per month for essential living expenses. Currently, he survives on subsistence income of $215. When informed about his pending naturalization, Mr. Kaplan exclaimed, " if I get my citizenship before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year which begins the eve of September 12th), it will be the greatest New Year’s gift I ever received.

In 1996 Congress restricted SSI benefits provided refugees, asylees and humanitarian immigrants to seven years; benefits can only be restored once the naturalization process is completed. Before then, immigrants received these public benefits on the same basis as U.S. citizens. Although Kaplan filed his immigration papers as soon as he was eligible, backlogs and processing delays prevented him from naturalizing within 7 years. In 2004, his benefits stopped and his monthly income plunged from $590 a month to $215. While he waited for his case to proceed, Kaplan studied English and prepared himself for the naturalization exam, which tests applicants on English and civics.

Citizenship will permit the reinstatement of Mr. Kaplan’s benefits, but as many as 12,000 refugees, asylees, and other humanitarian immigrants have lost their SSI benefits because of the seven-year deadline. It was estimated that unless the problem with delays was remedied, 46,000 people could lose their benefits by 2012. Kaplan became a lead plaintiff in a national class action law suit filed in December, 2006 which challenged delays in processing applications to become permanent residents and in citizenship processing which led to the termination of SSI benefits. A team of attorneys from Community Legal Services, HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, The Sergeant Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and pro bono counsel from Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll are representing a cross section of severely disabled, blind and elderly humanitarian immigrants who have lost or are at risk of losing subsistence SSI benefits. Representative class members include a blind Ethiopian who promoted democracy in his homeland and had to flee after his life was threatened, an elderly Albanian couple who faced persecution and prison and a young Iranian boy who is cognitively impaired whose mother was imprisoned for speaking out for freedom.

In July, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed HR 2608 which extends the time period for receiving SSI benefits to nine years, allowing two additional years for refugees and others to complete the naturalization process. The bill was held up in the U.S. Senate by Senators Jim Bunning (R-KY) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), preventing unanimous passage. Advocates are asking that the U.S. Senate reconsider this important bill that provides a life-line to elderly and disabled refugees before tens of thousands more lose their benefits.

"U.S. Citizenship is held in high esteem by refugees and asylees," explains Judith Bernstein Baker the Executive Director of HIAS and Council, the agency that is assisting Kaplan with his naturalization application. HIAS and Council has helped over 1,500 vulnerable refugees and immigrants naturalize since 1996. "Humanitarian immigrants come to the United States from countries where they were considered outsiders and denied full citizenship; these newcomers experienced persecution, repression, war, violence and other conflicts. As we celebrate Shmul’s important achievement, we are mindful that Congress never intended to welcome the most vulnerable humanitarian immigrants to our country, only to have them cut-off from critical safety net benefits because of bureaucratic delays. We join with others who are working towards policies and immigration procedures that enable the disabled and elderly to receive life sustaining benefits through a fair and expeditious citizenship process."

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