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Elderly, Disabled Refugees Lose Benefits

Va Choua Vang, who fled Laos after the Vietnam War, couldn't sleep over worry about how he would support his family when the U.S. government stopped sending monthly checks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Va Choua Vang, who fled Laos after the Vietnam War, couldn't sleep over worry about how he would support his family when the U.S. government stopped sending monthly checks.

"I didn't want to live. I thought about suicide," said Vang, 74, through his son, Chue Neng Vang.

The elder Vang, who doesn't speak English, did not know that the reason he and his wife stopped receiving the $1,500 in checks was because they failed to become citizens within seven years of their arrival in America.

A Hmong, Vang felt betrayed. He and other members of the Laotian ethnic minority group fought for the United States in Laos during the war with the promise that America would take care of him, his son said.

"I see my mom and dad crying. I have had to work to help support them," Chue Neng Vang, 21, said in a telephone interview from the family's home in Madison.

The money was Supplemental Security Income, and the Vangs are among more than 1,600 elderly or disabled former refugees or asylum-seekers nationwide who the Social Security Administration says lost the benefit last year for failing to become citizens.

The Vangs recently became citizens, but not before friends, family and others pitched in with food stamps, rent assistance and other help. They intend to reapply for their benefits.

Supplemental Security Income gives money to low-income people who are 65 and older or disabled. Federal rules require refugees who came after Aug. 26, 1996, to become U.S. citizens within seven years or lose their benefits. When that happens, they also lose eligibility for Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and elderly.

About 46,000 refugees or asylum-seekers who arrived since 1996 are subject to the citizenship provision, said Karyl Richson, a Social Security spokeswoman.

But becoming a citizen is troubling, at best, for elderly people who speak little or no English, can't drive or write, and are daunted by the complicated citizenship process. Unlike other legal immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers are not sponsored when they enter the United States. Sponsors agree to take financial responsibility for immigrants until they become citizens.

Becoming a citizen requires passing a test on U.S. civics, history and government. It costs $470 to submit a citizenship application, a burden for many Hmong, said Vue Lor, the older adult refugee coordinator for Lutheran Social Services in Appleton.

The loss of SSI benefits _ roughly $600 per month per person _ is "devastating, financially and emotionally," Lor said.

Richson said about half who lose benefits get them back by becoming citizens. But they must live in the United States for five years before seeking citizenship, and advocates believe they should be given more time to navigate the system.

The Social Security Administration's 2005 budget proposal calls for extending the deadline by one year, with legislation pending in Congress to extend it by two years.

"Many of these people are totally unfamiliar with the language," said Sen. Herb Kohl, a co-sponsor of the legislation. "They are unfamiliar with the customs. They are unfamiliar with the enormous process that is involved in becoming a citizen."

About 200,000 Hmong fled Laos for the United States when the communists seized control there in 1975 after the Vietnam War ended. The Vangs arrived in 1997, and more are coming _ about 15,000 from a refugee camp in Thailand, with 4,000 of those settling in Wisconsin.

Vang and his wife, Doua Lee, lost their SSI benefits in December, the family said. This year, the citizenship requirement will affect about 7,600 people who receive SSI benefits, among 7 million recipients, Richson said. The agency does not know how many are Hmong, who mostly were self-sufficient farmers in Laos.

Last year, 1,639 former refugees lost SSI benefits for failing to become citizens, including 256 in California, 48 in Minnesota and 25 in Wisconsin _ states with the largest Hmong populations, Richson said.

California alone has 11,816 refugees who came after August 1996 and receive SSI benefits, said Andrew Roth, spokesman for the California Social Services Department.

About 640,000 citizenship applications were pending Aug. 31, a backlog due in part to more detailed background checks required after the 2001 terrorist attacks, said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

An application takes about 14 months to work through the bureaucracy, he said.

Ying Lee, 67, of Sheboygan, lost his monthly $670 SSI benefit last year and needs help from relatives to pay his bills, he said, according to a translator.

He is taking English and citizenship classes and intends to apply for citizenship, but that will take months to complete.

"I went to talk to Social Security and they say they have to go by the law. They have no choice," Lee said. "I told them my arm was broke and I couldn't work. But they said, 'That's the law you got to go by.'"

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On the Net:

U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement: http://www.acf.dhhs.gov/programs/orr

Social Security Administration: http://www.socialsecurity.gov