Citizenship for Vulnerable Adults

For many people citizenship is an opportunity to achieve a new identity and to participate in civic life, including voting.  But for some, citizenship is critical to their economic security and well-being.  Under current law, refugees and other humanitarian immigrants are only able to retain eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for seven years and failure to naturalize may mean the loss of benefits. By definition, SSI recipients can’t work—they are either disabled or over 65.  Those who have lived and worked in the U.S. for less than 10 years are not eligible for regular social security, and must rely on SSI which provides $674 a month. Loss of SSI benefits forces a person to depend on general assistance that is little more than $200 per month in Pennsylvania.


HIAS Pennsylvania has worked on many fronts to protect elderly and disabled immigrants from losing these safety net benefits. Shmul Kaplan, an elderly refugee whose leg was amputated, tried to naturalize for 10 years, but due to processing delays, could not.  He lost his SSI benefits and was destitute. We joined with Community Legal Services and the Ballard Spahr law firm to file a class action law suit Kaplan, et al. v. Chertoff, et al., CV 06-5304, to expedite the naturalization benefits for those at risk of losing social security.  The case was settled and a new procedure put into place that helped thousands of vulnerable immigrants naturalize.


We work with individuals who cannot learn English or civics to obtain a medical waiver from the language and civics requirement if their disability interferes with their capacity to take the citizenship examination.  We have the largest program in Pennsylvania to assist medically needy applicants.  Last but not least, we conduct a citizenship class specifically for the elderly and our graduates have 99% pass rate.


Despite our all out efforts to assist vulnerable immigrants there are those who, because of denials of education, age or other factors, cannot, under current rules, complete the naturalization process. HIAS Pennsylvania is collaborating with other groups to explore either legislative or regulatory ways we can assist these individuals naturalize.


Meet Mrs. K , one of our clients. Mrs. K emigrated as a refugee from Armenia; she is very ill, suffering from dementia, severe arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and is blind in one eye. Her daughter works part-time to support both of them. Mrs. K. needed citizenship to obtain SSI benefits. We filed a request for a medical waiver with her application for naturalization, which would waive the English language and civics portions of the naturalization interview.  Today, Mrs. K. has the safety net benefits she requires, thanks to our assistance.

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