Statement by Carolyn Colvin,
Deputy Commissioner for Programs, Policy, Evaluation and Communications
before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary,
Subcommittee on Immigration
February 6, 1996
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
My name is Carolyn Colvin. I am the Deputy Commissioner for Programs, Policy, Evaluation, and Communications of the Social Security Administration. I am pleased to be here today on behalf of Commissioner Chater to discuss issues relating to the receipt of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits by noncitizens. As you have requested in your letter of invitation, I will provide information about growth in the numbers of noncitizens participating in the SSI program. In addition, I will discuss the options for addressing concerns about sponsored immigrants who receive SSI benefits and bring you up to date on SSA's efforts to combat fraud perpetrated on the SSI program and the immigrants themselves by unscrupulous middlemen.
Let me begin by describing the basic eligibility requirements in the Social Security Act that noncitizens must meet in order to be eligible for SSI.
BASIC ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS
To qualify for SSI, in addition to being aged, blind, or disabled and meeting the SSI income and resource tests, a person must reside in the United States and be; (1) either a U.S. citizen, or (2) an alien lawfully admitted for permanent residence, or (3) otherwise permanently residing in the United States under color of law.
Noncitizens who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence are issued either immigrant visas abroad by the Department of State or are adjusted to permanent resident status in the United States by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
The other group of noncitizens who can be eligible for SSI are those "permanently residing in the United states under color of law" (PRUCOL). PRUCOL is a broad categorization that includes 16 specific immigration statuses for noncitizens and a general category that includes noncitizens known by the INS to be present in the country and INS does not contemplate enforcing their departure.
Among noncitizens who are PRUCOL are individuals in three categories who are admitted or are allowed to remain in the United States for humanitarian reasons including refugees, asylees, and individuals who have had their deportations withheld under section 243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. These noncitizens generally do not have sponsors and often arrive in the United States with no income or resources. SSI has been the only form of on-going cash assistance for many aged, blind, and disabled refugees and qualified persons.
Noncitizens present in the United States temporarily as visitors (nonimmigrants) and noncitizens in the United States illegally are not eligible for SSI.
I would now like to give an overview of noncitizen participation in the SSI program. The number of noncitizens on the SSI rolls has grown, reflecting the general increase in immigration in recent years. The number of noncitizens receiving SSI increased at an average annual rate of 14.3 percent in the period 1985 through 1995. Noncitizens currently represent 12 percent of all SSI recipients; 32 percent of the SSI aged population; and about 6.2 percent of the SSI disabled population.
Generally, noncitizen SSI recipients are older than the rest of the SSI population. Currently, 67 percent of the noncitizen recipients are over age 65, and 27 percent are over age 75. In addition, because noncitizen recipients, particularly the aged, may not receive significant income from other sources, such as Social Security, they tend also to be poorer than citizen recipients.
Most noncitizen recipients receive benefits based on age which is not typical of the general SSI recipient population. Only 22 percent of all recipients receive benefits based on age, while 58 percent of noncitizen recipients receive benefits on this basis.
The categories of noncitizen recipients are somewhat more evenly distributed between aged and disabled than is the general SSI recipient population. About 61 percent of noncitizens admitted for permanent residence are aged and 39 percent are disabled. About 51 percent of refugees on SSI are aged and 49 percent are disabled. The percentage distribution that applies to refugees also applies to the group that incudes asylees and all other noncitizen categories.
The number of refugees on the SSI rolls has also grown over the past 10 years. In 1985 24,000 refugees received benefits. By 1995, the number had grown to 138,600. While refugees make up two-thirds of PRUCOL class of noncitizens, they constitute only 18 percent of all noncitizen recipients and just 2 percent of all SSI recipients.
CAUSES OF GROWTH
As we stated earlier, the growth in the number of noncitizens receiving SSI mirrors the increase in immigration in recent years. In 1988, 643,000 noncitizens were admitted for permanent residence, the most in any year since 1924. In 1989, this status was accorded one million immigrants followed by 1.5 million and 1.8 million, in 1990 and 1991, respectively. These large increases were due to implementation of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 that legalized 2.7 million previously undocumented noncitizens. As a result, many of these noncitizens were able to become eligible for SSI.
A contributing factor to the growth may be the effects of conflicts around the world that have led to. the greater admission of refugees.
SSA Verification Procedures
Mr. Chairman, whatever the reasons for the growth in noncitizen participation in the SSI program, I want to make it very clear that noncitizens who are in the United States without the knowledge and permission of the INS and who are not covered by defmed PRUCOL categories are not eligible for SSI.
SSA's regulations and operating instructions that set out the requirements for proof of citizenship or noncitizen status are designed to assure that only those individuals who are legally present in the United States and who meet the other statutory provisions for SSI eligibility are, in fact, found eligible. I would like to outline briefly those requirements.
Every SSI applicant's citizenship or immigration status must be verified before they can be made eligible. To verify U.S. citizenship, our field offices look at birth or baptismal records, U.S. passports, naturalization papers, or other documents reflecting U.S. citizenship. In the case of noncitizens who state that they are lawfully admitted for permanent residence, we require that they provide documents issued by INS as evidence. Our field office employees examine the documents using special equipment and procedures established by the INS. If the documents appear in any way to be invalid, copies are sent to INS for verification.
Many noncitizens in PRUCOL categories also have INS documentation of their status, although some may not. In all PRUCOL cases, we contact INS for verification of the authenticity of the documentation or the fact that the noncitizen is known to INS and that INS does not contemplate deporting the noncitizen. Reverification with INS also is done annually for all PRUCOL noncitizens on the SSI rolls, or more frequently if it appears necessary based on the individual's situation.
In about 160 Social Security Offices with the greatest number of cases involving noncitizens, the Immigration and Naturalization's on-line Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements System (SAVE) is available to assist in verifying the resident status of applicants for SSI benefits.
SPONSOR SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT
Mr. Chairman, I now would like to address your concern about sponsored immigrants receiving publicly funded assistance. But again, some background information may be helpful.
Many noncitizens admitted for permanent residence are sponsored by a family member residing in the United States. The affidavit of support that the sponsor signs, which affrrms that the immigrant will not become a public charge, supports the approval of the noncitizen's request to immigrate. However, the courts have ruled that the affidavit is not legally enforceable. The Administration has proposed making the affidavit legally enforceable.
In the late 1970's, as a result of similar concerns about the number of noncitizens entering the country and the impact on publicly funded assistance programs, consideration was given to making the affidavit of support legally enforceable for 5 years as a way of reducing the number of noncitizens receiving welfare shortly after their arrival in the United States. What emerged from that debate was a provision, effective in 1980, that required a part of the income and resources of the noncitizen's sponsor to be taken into account in determining whether a noncitizen is eligible for SSI for a period of three years after the noncitizen's entry into the United States. Exceptions were provided for those who became blind or disabled after their admission into the United States. Also, sponsored noncitizens could become eligible for SSI during the "deeming period" if the sponsor's fmancial situation deteriorated. This provision--generally known as "sponsor deeming"--precludes sponsors from shifting their financial responsibilities to the U.S. taxpayers by requiring that a portion of their income and resources and those of their spouses be counted along with the immigrant's own income and resources in determining the immigrant's eligibility and the amount of the SSI payment.
Sponsor deeming under the SSI program currently applies for a period of 5 years after the immigrant's admission into the United States for permanent residence and applies to all lawfully admitted, sponsored immigrants. Under current law, the deeming period will revert to 3 years beginning October of this year.
Sponsor deeming is very effective at keeping sponsored immigrants off the SSI rolls. The effectiveness of the deeming provision is shown by the fact that in December 1994, the most recent date for which we have data, fewer than 5,000 noncitizens with sponsors came on the rolls before the deeming period ended. This is only about I percent of all noncitizens lawfully admitted for permanent residence currently receiving SSI benefits.
OPTIONS FOR SPONSORED IMMIGRANTS
In spite of the demonstrable effectiveness of the sponsor-to-immigrant deeming provision, there is concern about the growth in the number of immigrants on the SSI rolls. In your letter of invitation, you requested that I discuss four policy options intended to address this concern--prohibiting SSI eligibility for a specified number of years, changing current-law deeming provisions, enforcing deportation under the "public charge" provision, and requiring sponsors to purchase health insurance for the immigrants that they sponsor.
In discussing these options, I want to emphasize that the Administration strongly endorses holding sponsors accountable for the support of immigrants that they bring into this country and making the sponsors' commitment of support a legally binding contract. There is concern however that, in crafting ways to hold sponsors accountable, changes might be made in SSI that would adversely affect some elderly or disabled immigrants in situations where they truly need help in meeting basic needs because their sponsors are unable to provide it.
A problem with an outright ban on SSI eligibility for sponsored immigrants for a specified number of years is that it would not be sufficiently flexible to help immigrants when they become disabled or the sponsor can no longer provide support. In these situations, the cost of essential assistance would most likely fall on the State or local governmental entity. Current-law deeming avoids this pitfall by effectively precluding an immigrant's receiving SSI only so long as the sponsor's income and resources are sufficient to provide for the immigrant. It also takes into account situations where noncitizens become too disabled after entry to be able to support themselves and their support would become onerous for the sponsor due to the additional expenses associated with the disability.
However, we recognize that, effective as the current-law deeming provision is, it can be improved. To this end, the Administration would support a proposal to continue deeming the sponsor's income and resources until the immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen, with exceptions for: elderly immigrants aged 75 or older who have resided in the country for many years; those who have worked or served in the military; those who have become blind and disabled after entry; Cuban and Haitian Entrants, and those on the SSI rolls at the time of enactment who have completed their deeming periods. We do not believe that the current-law deeming formula should be modified, because it sets aside some of the sponsor's funds in recognition of the sponsor's own needs and provides flexibility for situations where the sponsor's ability to support the noncitizen may be undercut by deteriorating health or loss of employment. The Administration would also support a proposal that would make the sponsor's affidavit of support a legally binding contract between the sponsor and the immigrant.
The Administration strongly opposes any change that would require deeming of the sponsor's income and resources to an individual after he or she becomes a U.S. citizen. Such an approach would likely be subject to a constitutional challenge as applied to naturalized citizens, who may be ineligible solely because of their former status as noncitizens, for benefits to which other citizens are entitled.
We are unable to assess the impact of the third policy--the enforcement of deportation under the "public charge" option. We would defer to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for an analysis of the effectiveness of this approach as a deterrent because of its experience with this procedure.
Likewise we defer to the health experts in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the issue of requiring sponsors to purchase health insurance as a condition of the immigrants' entry.
I would now like to turn to another issue you asked me to address, Mr. Chairman-allegations of interpreters providing fraudulent information to secure SSI payments for some non-English speaking applicants. I want to assure you that the Administration is committed to taking the strongest possible measures to deal with fraud in the SSI disability program as well as all the programs we administer. We have zero tolerance for fraud. No one should be allowed to defraud the government and take scarce resources away from the needy disabled and elderly who deserve them and depend upon them so much. Fraud makes people, English speaking or not, suffer because it makes all applicants suspect. The program as a whole suffers as its reputation is tarnished in the eyes of the public.
I would first like to provide you with some background on this issue, and then I will discuss our efforts related to this area. I will also address briefly the recent General Accounting Office (GAO) report on interpreter fraud.
Within the last five or so years, we have encountered a small but troubling number of cases of suspected interpreter fraud in the SSI program. These cases were primarily in the states of Washington and California and primarily involved noncitizens from Southeast Asia. Investigation of these cases revealed that the fraud issue generally related to middlemen who solicited applicants, and, for a fee, fabricated a fraudulent disability, and then accompanied the applicants to serve as interpreters during their interviews before SSA (and to medical examinations in connection with their claims). In some cases, medical providers acted as collaborators with these fraudulent schemes by providing false medical information. It is important to note that the mere use of an interpreter is not an indicator of potential fraud. Interpreters are essential fo.r communication between English and non-English speakers and middlemen are routinely used to conduct government business in many non-English speaking communities and cultures. Qualified interpreters fill an important gap when public agencies lack bilingual intake workers or interviewers.
SSA Initiatives to Deter Fraud
Given the difficulties associated with this issue, we believe it is very important to focus on deterring fraud from the outset of the application process. Therefore, to deter interpreter fraud in the SSI application process, SSA has over the past several years implemented significant enhancements to our procedures for handling claims from nonEnglish speaking individuals and possible fraud situations. We think these enhancements have substantially improved the integrity of the SSI disability program compared to only four or five years ago, and we expect this trend to continue.
SSA Efforts to Address Known Cases of Fraud
In addition to deterring fraud, we must be prepared to address the issue of fraud after it has been detected. Let me now discuss how we handle cases of suspected fraud. Whenever fraud is suspected, SSA reviews the case and routinely refers the case to our Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In turn, SSA receives leads from OIG, as well as other law enforcement agencies, that result from their investigative activity.
In California, for example, working from OIG leads, we have completed 622 continuing disability reviews where fraud was suspected. Upon review, about 60 percent of these have proven to be cases of true disability. When taken together with the fact that less than one-third of the OIG leads were receiving SSI, this indicates that the field offices and State di sability adjudicators had done a good job of not allowing fraudulent claims. Of those that did get on the rolls, 40 percent--over 230 cases--have had benefits terminated.
In Washington State, an interagency taskforce (with representatives from SSA, the U.S. Attorney, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and several other State and Federal components) has largely completed investigation of 600 Tacoma area cases. The taskforce is now conducting interviews to confront the recipients with the evidence against them. Taking advantage of the additional evidence and the interviews provided by the taskforce, SSA then reopens the original favorable decisions. Out of the 40 cases with completed interviews so far, benefits have been terminated in 30 cases.
As I indicated earlier, cases of suspected fraud are routinely referred to our OIG for a fraud determination and possible referral to the Department of Justice for prosecution. I am pleased to report that, as a result of the investigations undertaken on this issue, over 30 arrests have been made in California and Washington, with at least 15 convictions.
GAO Report Findings
Let me now turn to the recent GAO report which discussed applicant fraud in the SSI disability program when middlemen are involved. Last August, GAO released a report indicating that SSA could do more to combat interpreter fraud and provided three recommendations to help accomplish this.
Mr. Chairman, I share GAO's belief in the importance of this area. In fact, the actions we have been taking over the last two years are consistent with the three recommendations in the GAO report. We do have a program wide strategy for handling this issue, in the form of our agency-wide policies for handling claims of non-English speaking applicants and for preventing and detecting fraud, waste, and abuse. We have in place regional directories of interpreter services, and we are in the planning stages of a comprehensive third-party database that will include ways to identify interpreters and middlemen who have been involved in fraudulent claims. We also have access to information obtained by State Medicaid fraud units and other government agencies, and we are strengthening our cooperative effort with the fraud unit in the California DDS.
We did consider GAO's suggestion that all bilingual interviews be conducted by SSA interpreters. Our basic policy is to use bilingual employees wherever feasible, and the vast majority of bilingual interviews are handled by SSA employees. But to ensure timely and equitable service, our experienced field office interviewers have the discretion to use other alternatives as well, including adult family members as interpreters. Experience has shown that this practice works quite well--the vast majority of non-English speaking claimants are not involved in fraudulent activity. In addition, our employees have the authority to terminate a suspicious or unsatisfactory interview at any time if they believe inaccurate information is being supplied, and to reschedule with an independent interpreter.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, I think it is important to note that the GAO report did not find any new instances of fraudulent activity. Although there continue to be isolated cases of fraud throughout the nation, no new pockets of interpreter fraud have surfaced. We believe our hard work in this area has paid off. Moreover, we think our initiatives will continue to improve the program's integrity, while at the same time treating both English and non-English speaking individuals filing for SSI disability benefits fairly and equitably, and without discrimination or unwarranted inconvenience.
In conclusion, we believe that the sponsors of immigrants should live up to their pledges to provide sufficient fmancial support so that, in most cases, public monies would not be needed to help meet immigrants' basic needs. At the same time, we believe that recognition be given to sponsors and their families' needs so that, if sponsors become unable to provide for the immigrant because of his failing health, accident, or loss of employment neither sponsors nor immigrants would be left destitute. There is ample evidence that sponsor deeming has been effective in preventing sponsors from reneging on their pledges of support that are the basis for the approval of the immigrant's entry into the United States. Extending the deeming period and making these support pledges legally binding contracts would provide even stronger safeguards of the public purse.