Each year, hundreds of refugees come to Kentucky with the approval of the federal government to escape persecution in their home countries.
Although they're here legally, up to 605 elderly and disabled refugees in the state stand to lose their Supplemental Security Income benefits if Congress doesn't act by Sept. 30, according to local advocates.
"It's a pretty profound consequence," said Rich Seckel, director of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center in Lexington.
SSI is a federal benefit program that provides a $674 base monthly income to people who can't work because of their advanced age or disability or blindness, and because they don't have other resources.
Though many people who aren't citizens are not eligible for SSI, the federal government makes an exception for refugees. But to keep SSI, the refugees must seek citizenship within seven years of their arrival in the United States.
Many of the refugees who could lose their benefits next month are unable to successfully take and pass citizenship tests in English because of their disabilities, according to Rev. Patrick Delahanty, Executive Director of the Frankfort-based Catholic Conference of Kentucky.
According to the Social Security Administration, there are as many as 605 refugees in Kentucky who are at risk of losing benefits, said Ellen Sittenfeld Battistelli, a policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center.
Advocates have asked for help from U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis — Republican members of Kentucky's federal delegation and key players in any response by Congress to the problem.
In letters sent to the lawmakers in May, Delahanty told them about a 15-year-old girl who came to Louisville as a small child and has lost benefits.
"With her family, she fled persecution in their former Congolese village, where their lives had been threatened," a letter said.
The girl must attend a school for the disabled because she is "developmentally disabled with multiple major disabilities including paralysis of one side of her body, serious cognitive deficits, blindness in one eye, and incontinence," Delahanty wrote.
The girl's father, a single parent who cares for her and her five brothers and sisters, is a legal permanent resident.
"Despite his best efforts and deep loyalty to the United States," the father failed the U.S. citizenship test twice due to the difficulties he has experienced obtaining English proficiency, Delahanty said in the letters.
He said the situation left the girl and her family "in a terrible bind which Congress never intended. "
In Bowling Green, the situation is endangering the life of an Albanian refugee who fled war-torn Kosovo in 1999 and has severe and uncontrolled diabetes, Delahanty wrote.
Because of her inability to speak or write English and her physical infirmities, she has been unable to acquire literacy in English or pass the U.S. citizenship test, although she is a legal permanent resident, he said.
Seckel said people with disabilities can request waivers of the language requirements and civics test from the federal government but the process is complicated.
In Lexington, many people are turning to the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic for help, Seckel said, but Congress should act to fix the problem because "we should not turn every refugee with a disability into a new legal case."
The advocates are asking Congress for legislation that would ease the citizenship requirement for the severely disabled and elderly or in the short term, allow an extension of the deadline for pursuing citizenship.
Congress extended the deadline once in 2008 so that refugees could receive assistance for up to nine years before becoming citizens. But that extension expires Sept. 30.
U.S. Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., have introduced legislation that continues the nine-year policy.
Because McConnell is the Minority Leader of the Senate — the highest ranking Republican in the Senate — "his support can ensure that this population continues to be protected," Battistelli said.
McConnell spokeswoman Pam Simpson said Thursday that McConnell "is aware of the concerns and is tracking the issue closely."
Advocates noted that Davis is chairman of the key House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources. On Thursday, Davis said that any refugees having difficulties with becoming a citizen or applying for a waiver should contact his office.
Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409.