We might as well melt down the Statue of Liberty and sell her for copper if Congress allows the cutoff of federal assistance to people who were admitted to this country on humanitarian grounds and are too old or disabled to support themselves.
Elderly Cubans who spent years in Castro's prisons, Jews who were persecuted in Russia, Hmong who fought with the U.S. in Southeast Asia, Congolese who fled genocide, victims of torture and sex trafficking — already 3,800 have been informed that their Supplemental Security Income benefits will end Sept. 30, with more to follow each month, unless Congress acts.
SSI provides a base payment of $674 a month to individuals who are unable to work because of age, blindness or permanent disability. SSI is not usually available to non-citizens, but Congress made an exception for refugees and humanitarian migrants, people who entered the country legally, often with the sponsorship of local groups.
In many states, including Kentucky, SSI eligibility is a qualifier for Medicaid, so refugees could also lose medical care.
This emergency is an unintended consequence of the 1996 welfare reform law, which gave immigrants seven years to become citizens and retain SSI.
Many have failed to meet the deadline for a variety of reasons, ranging from green card processing delays to the difficulty of learning a language and passing a citizenship test when you're in your 70s and blind.
There's a waiver process, but it's complicated, and, as Rich Seckel, director of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center in Lexington, says "we should not turn every refugee with a disability into a legal case."
Seckel's organization is among 19 in Kentucky, including the Kentucky Council of Churches, Catholic Conference and Jewish Family and Career Center, that are calling on Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Geoff Davis to take a lead in averting this inhumanity.
Davis chairs the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee. McConnell is the Senate's minority leader, which puts both Kentuckians in key positions to help move a bipartisan benefits extension sponsored by Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
This would be the second extension. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed a two-year extension that received unanimous approval from Congres.
Another extension is better than pushing old and infirm refugees onto the streets. But a more permanent fix also is needed.
Up to 605 people in Kentucky could lose benefits, including a 67-year-old Congolese single father of six and his profoundly disabled 15-year-old daughter in Louisville.
In Bowling Green, a 56-year-old Albanian who fled war-torn Kosovo in 1999 lost her SSI and Medicaid when the 2008 extension expired last year. She has permanent residency status but is unable to prepare for the citizenship test because of severe diabetes, high blood pressure and literacy difficulties.
The urgency of honoring our covenant with refugees who are here legally will test not just Congress' reputation for dysfunction but also its decency.