- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

President Bush is proposing that thousands of refugees and people granted asylum in the United States be given more time to become Americans, avoiding the loss of federal disability payments because they are not citizens.

In his proposed budget, Mr. Bush said people who have legally been in the country at least seven years should have an additional year before they lose Social Security disability payments.

A statement that accompanied Mr. Bush’s budget plan said the administration “recognizes that some individuals have been unable to obtain citizenship within seven years due to a combination of processing delays, and for [asylum seekers], statutory caps on the number who can become permanent residents.”

Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the proposal is a good start but should be broadened.

“There should be no cap for refugees and [asylum seekers],” he said. “They should be eligible regardless of how long they’ve been in the country.”

A 1996 welfare-reform law required all those seeking asylum and refuge who entered the United States after Aug. 22, 1996, to become citizens within seven years or lose their monthly Supplemental Security Income checks.

The deadline was in part the result of reports that some immigrants were bringing disabled parents to the United States and immediately placing them on SSI.

The Social Security Administration began sending letters in September to about 4,000 people who missed the seven-year deadline, saying their SSI benefits were suspended. When that happened, the immigrants also lost eligibility for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and elderly.

The benefits could be restored when the immigrants become citizens.

An additional 8,500 people are expected to lose benefits this year, the agency said.

An administration official said the extension would not be retroactive.

Mr. Bush has recently said that U.S. immigration laws should be made more rational and more humane. He has asked Congress to create a temporary work program that he said could help provide more secure borders.

The Bush proposal faces strong opposition from Republicans in Congress and, according to polls, from a majority of voters.

A group of 23 Republican House member sent a letter to Mr. Bush on Jan. 27 warning that his plan was widely unpopular with the public. “Since the president’s [Jan. 7] speech [outlining his immigration plan], our offices have been inundated with calls from dismayed constituents expressing vehement opposition to the administration’s proposal,” the letter said.

A CNN-USA Today poll last month found 55 percent of Americans opposed the Bush plan, 74 percent opposed any measure that would make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, and, by a 2-to-1 margin, those surveyed said immigrants hurt the economy by driving down wages.

To become U.S. citizens, federal law requires immigrants to be knowledgeable in English and pass tests on American history and civics. Some of the refugees and asylum seekers are too old or sick to learn the necessary material, advocates say.

Also, becoming a citizen can take longer than seven years in some cases because of a backlog of applications for citizenship, legal permanent residency and other immigration benefits.

Asylum seekers face a worse problem. Federal law allows only 10,000 of them annually to become legal permanent residents, a first step to obtaining citizenship.

Some asylum seekers are now waiting 16 years to apply for citizenship, said Adey Fisseha, policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, an immigration advocacy group.

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