Statement of Carolyn Colvin,
Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Policy, Social Security Administration
before the House Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
February 13, 1997
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
I am Carolyn Colvin, Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Policy of the Social Security Administration, and I will discuss the Administration's budget proposals for making changes in the welfare reform provisions affecting Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility for noncitizens. I also would like to bring you up to date on SSA's progress with the implementation of the welfare reform provisions relating to noncitizens.
At the outset I want to emphasize that the President remains committed to welfare reform and to the core issues related to his welfare-to-work initiative that he has supported in the past and that he has strengthened in this year's budget. The President, however, is concerned with the provisions of the law that deny most legal immigrants access to fundamental safety net programs, even though legal immigrants were admitted into this country as full members of our community and they work and pay taxes.
When President Clinton signed the welfare reform legislation into law, he said that:
We should not be punishing people who are working for a living already; we should do everything we can do to lift them up and keep them at work and help them support their children. We also believe that the congressional leadership insisted on cuts in programs for legal immigrants that are far too deep.
The President reiterated this message in his State of the Union address:
And we must join together to do something else, too, something both Republican and Democratic governors have asked us to do: to restore basic health and disability benefits when misfortu ne strikes immigrants who came to this country legally, who work hard, pay taxes, and obey the law. To do otherwise is simply unworthy of a great nation of immigrants.
The proposal in the President's FY 1998 budget would make exceptions to the restrctions in the SSI and Medicaid programs for certain noncitizens who become blind or disabled after the ir entry into the United States and allow SSI and Medicaid eligibility for immigrant children on the same basis as citizen children. The proposal also would extend the 5-year eligibility limit to 7 years for refugees, asylees, and noncitizens who have had their deportations withheld.
Overview of Welfare Reform Provisions
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 contains provisions that severely restrict the participation of noncitizens in the SSI program. These provisions include general bars to SSI eligibility. It also includes provisions requiring the "deeming" of a sponsor's income and resources to a noncitizen and obliging a sponsor to reimburse the government for benefits paid to the noncitizen. Although refugees, asylees, and noncitizens whose deportations have been withheld under section 243(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) may continue to be eligible for SSI, the new law limits their eligibility to only the first 5 years after they are granted such immigration statuses.
Legal immigrants may be eligible for SSI if they meet one of the SSI eligibility categories in welfare reform--i.e., they earn or can be credited with 40 quarters of work or if they are members ofthe military or veterans (and certain of their family members). In addition, the welfare reform provisions relating to sponsor-to-immigrant deeming and the sponsor's obligation to reimburse the Federal Government for any SSI benefits provided immigrants during the deeming period would apply.
Under welfare reform rules, only about one-quarter of the lawful permanent residents who received SSI in 1996 would meet one of the new SSI eligibility categories. Of the noncitizens on the rolls, 255,000 (33 percent) are disabled and under age 65, 321,000 (40 percent) are aged 65-75 and 227,000 (27 percent) are over age 75.
Exemption for Immigrants With Disabilities and Children
The President's proposal would provide SSI and Medicaid eligibility for individuals who meet the definition of "qualified alien"1 in the welfare reform legislation if their blindness or disability began after they were admitted to the United States. The proposal also would provide immigrant children the same access to SSI and Medicaid as our nation provides citizen children. Noncitizens who do not meet the "qualified alien" definition and persons who are in the country illegally or temporarily would not be eligible for SSI.
Many legal immigrants may face unforeseen problems before they can naturalize. Our country should assist legal inunigrants and their families when an accident or disabling illness prevents them from supporting themselves.
We must remember that these individuals who receive SSI on the basis of disability have severe medical impairments, little or no income or resources of their own, and limited (if any) earnings capacity. In fact, in order to be considered disabled for SSI, an individual must have a mental or physical impairment so severe that it prevents him or her from doing any work for a period of 12 months or would result in his or her death.
As examples, an immigrant who was paralyzed in a construction site accident, or an 80 year old immigrant widow with alzheimers who has outlived all her citizen children and is in a nursing home, or a young immigrant who develops inoperable cancer and is unable to work would be eligible for support. The Administration believes we should not abandon individuals in these circumstances.
In addition to the compelling needs of the affected immigrants, the Administration's proposal will prevent a substantial cost shift to State and local government, churches and nonprofit organizations. The nation's governors identified this problem and in a statement by the National Governors' Association urged "Congress and the administration to work in pannership with the National Governors' Association to ensure that the immigration system and its requirements are fair to both citizens and noncitizens and meet the needs of aged and disabled legal immigrants who cannot naturalize and whose benefits may be affected. "
The Administration continues to support holding the sponsors of immigrants responsible for those they bring into the country. Sponsors generally sign affidav its of support for those they sponsor . The Administration supported making these affidavits of support legally . enforceable documents. The immigration reform legislation enacted in September last year included this provision. The Administration continues to believe that sponsors should be held responsib le for the fmanciaI support of immigrants in most situations.
However, the Administration is concerned that when a sponsored immigrant experiences an unforeseen disability after entry into the United States, the potential financial impact on the sponsor could be devastating. If an illness or accident occurs that makes the immigrant unable to work, the sponsor would be liable not only for the immigrant's basic needs but also for the cost of his or her medical care and other expenses attributable to disability. Such expenses may be beyond the sponsors' means.
The President's proposal addresses this potentially adverse effect by allowing SSI and Medicaid eligibility and removing the deeming requirements, the 5-year ban, and the obligation of sponsors to reimburse the Federal Government for any SSI benefits received by immigrants who became disabled after entering the country.
While the President's proposal would permit SSI and Medicaid eligibility to children as well as adults who become disabled after they enter the country, the proposal also addresses the needs of children who are already disabled when they enter the country. Under the proposal, disabled individuals who enter the United States as lawful permanent residents before they are aged 18, would be eligible for SSI and Medicaid, and the exemptions for deeming and sponsor reimbursement would apply.
In a number of cases, disabled children who enter the country would do so accompanying their parent. Thus, even though sponsor-to-immigrant deeming would not apply, the child's parent's income and resources would be taken into account in determining the child's need for benefits.
The proposal creates a safety net for disabled children. Unlike adults who can become U.S. citizens after they have lawfully re sided in the country for a specified number of years, children cannot naturalize on their own until they reach age 18. Naturalization of one noncitizen parent can be accompanied by naturalization of the child. If both parents naturalize, the child automatically derives citizenship. Thus, if something happens to their noncitizen parents, these disabled children would have no means of support and could not otherwise be eligible for SSI until they became U.S. citizens.
Refugees and Asylees
The President's budget proposal also includes a provision for extending the time limit for SSI eligibility from 5 to 7 years for refugees, asylees, and individuals who have had their deportations withheld under section 243(h) of the INA.
Individuals in these three immigration categories are in the United States because they have been subjected to persecution in their homelands because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. An estimated 135,000 SSI beneficiaries are in these categories. They often have suffered much hardship and arrive in the country with little or no resources. If they are aged, blind, or disabled they may be eligible for SSI, Medicaid, and other programs for a period of 5 years after they are granted refugee, asylee, or deportation withheld status. Before welfare reform legislation, there was no restriction on the length of time that they could receive benefits. Now they are eligible for SSI for only a period of 5 years after entering the country.
Generally, immigrants who have been in the United States for 5 years may apply for citizenship. Although INS accepts naturalization applicat ions up to 3 months before the 5 year requirement is met, the naturalization process can take up to 6 months and, in some areas of the country, can be of even longer duration. Currently, the p.rocess is running much longer due to record application volume and additional procedures recently implemented. Thus , individuals who entered the United States as refugees, asylees, or who have had their deportations withheld, are very likely to lose their 551 eligibility even if they apply for citizenship at the earliest possible date. Such inunigrants generally do not have sponsors and would have nowhere to turn for assistance in the interim . The proposal would allow sufficient time for them to become U.S. citizens without an interruption in their SSI benefits.
Now that I've described the President's proposal let me turn to SSA' s efforts in implementing the noncitizens provisions in welfare reform
Implementation of Noncitizens Provisions in Welfare Reform
In planning for carrying out the noncitizens provision in welfare reform, SSA has put together a team made up of representatives from virtually every SSA component. The team has been meeting since August 1995, and has devoted innumerable hours to policy and operational issues involved with the provisions. Implementation policies have been coordinated with other Federal agencies such as the Deparonent of Agriculture, The Depa rtment of and Health and Human Services (including the Health Care Financing Administration), and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
Numbers of Noncitizens Affected
Before I begin describing our implementation strategy, I would like to give you an idea of how many noncitizens on the SSI rolls would lose eligibility if the prohibition on SSI eligibility remains unchanged.
As of October 1996, there were approximately 800,000 recipients receiving SSI who entered the program as noncitizens. Nearly three-quarters of them were lawful permanent residents. The remainder were mostly refugees and asylees. Some of these individuals may have already naturalized but have not informed SSA. Also, given the fact that applications for U.S. citizenship are at an all-time high, a number-perhaps a significant number-of the noncitizens who currently receive SSI may become citizens by the end of the summer. SSA estimates that in the first full year of the prohibition (FY 1998), about 500,000 noncitizens will lose SSI eligibility according to CBO estimates. Noncitizens who remain on the rolls will be refugees and asylees who have not been in the country for 5 years, lawful permanent residents who have earned 40 quarters of coverage or who can be credited with 40 quarters earned by their spouses or parents, and military personnel, veterans, and their spouses and children.
Identifying Beneficiaries Potentially Affected
The major task that we faced in implementing the new law was to identify those SSI recipients who are to be made ineligible by the legislation. First we made sure that our records concerning immigration statuses were current. It wasn't until last fall that SSA was able to change the codes that indicated which immigration status an individual was in if he or she changed statuses. For example, if a person was a refugee when first eligible for SSI, he or she would still have been shown as a refugee even if he or she subsequently became a U.S. citizen. In addition, prior to 1981, SSA's computer records did not contain information about an SSI recipient's citizenship or immigrant status. When we began, we had an estimated 1.4 million SSI recipients in our records shown as either noncitizens or citizens whose citizenship had not been verified.
In order to correct our records, we initiated a series of computer matches. We matched the SSI records with our Social Security number records and the INS naturalization records. These matches allowed us to establish U.S. citizenship for approximately 320,000 recipients. We also marched SSI records of noncitizens to SSA's earnings records to determine which lawful permanent residents had earned 40 quarters of coverage and, thus, would be exempt from the SSI ban. In addition, as I mentioned, we are now able to update the SSI records when individuals bring proof of their citizenship status into our field offices. All of these efforts have left us with approximately 900,000 SSI beneficiaries who are either noncitizens or citizens who have not yet had their citizenship verified.
Our next task is to notify the approximate 900,000 individuals of the new SSI eligibility provisions before March 31, 1997, as required. As you may know, we began mailing the first notices last week. Because of other workloads relating to the welfare reform provision on SSI benefits for disabled children and an earlier provision eliminating SSI benefits on the basis of drug addiction and alcoholism, we are sending the notices on a staggered basis of about 112,500 per week over an 8 week period. All these "informational" notices will be in the hands of the beneficiaries by the statutory deadline. It is important to note that this mailing is only the first of two notices that noncitizens will receive before their benefits stop.
The informational notices include a list of the categories of noncitizens who may continue to be eligible for SSI and explain what an individual has to do to prove that he or she is in one of the categories. The notices also say that SSA may be able to help the individuals get the proofs they need. We have put the most important message right at the top of the notice. That is, if it cannot be proven that a noncitizen is in one of the SSI-eligible categories, his or her SSI benefits will stop.
There are three different versions of this first notice tailored to individual circumstances. The notice going to beneficiaries shown on our records as noncitizens asks them to contact SSA within 90 days if they think that they may be in one of the SSI-eligible categories. The notice going to persons whose citizenship status has not been verified and to noncitizens who are likely to remain eligible2 tells them that we have to update our records and will be contacting them at a later date. The third version of the notice is being sent to refugees and asylees who have not been in the United States for 5 years. This notice will say that their SSI eligibility is now time limited and that we will contact them again shortly before the time-limit expires.
All of the notices include an enclosure in eight languages, including English, explaining that it includes very important information about SSI eligibility and if they cannot read English, they should take it to someone who can read it to them right away. For those recipients who have indicated Spanish language preference on their record, the notices will be sent in both Spanish and English.Individuals responding to these informational notices will create a large workload for SSA's field offices. In order to alleviate some of this workload and to provide better service to our customers, we have established 22 interviewing centers in areas across the country where large populations of noncitizen SSI recipients live such as Los Angeles, the central valley of California, Miami, and New York. SSA has hired over 1,000 temporary employees to assist with implementation of the welfare reform provisions. Of these 195 will be assigned along with experienced SSA employees to staff the interviewing centers. Notices being sent to recipients in these areas will include the address and hours of operation for the center nearest them.
Individuals who provide proof of their continuing eligibility for SSI wllU receive a notice from SSA verifying their eligibility.
Planned Action Notices and Suspensions
Individuals who do not contact SSA or who do not provide proof of continuing eligibility after they receive their informational notice will receive a second notice; a notice of planned action (NPA) informing them that their SSI benefits will stop. NPAs also will be sent out on a staggered basis. Noncitizens who received the informational notices in February will receive the NPA in July and those who received informational notices in March will receive the NPA in August. The NPA will state that benefits will stop the following month (August or September, as applicable).
Under our longstanding, due process rules, the NPA will tell individuals exactly why their benefits are being stopped and advise them of their appeal rights. If an individual requests appeal with 10 days of receipt of the NPA, benefits will be continued until a decision is made at the initial level of appeal. Although benefit continuation applies only if the individual files an appeal within 10 days, he or she may appeal the determination at anytime within 60 days after receipt of the notice.
We have made the policy decision that the stopping of an individual's benefits in these cases will permit us to reinstate an individual' s eligibility if, within 12 months from the suspension date, he or she becomes naturalized. The reinstatement would be effective as of the date of naturalization. While this may seem a mere technicality, it assures that former SSI recipients who become citizens will not have to go through the full SSI application process (including a disability determination in disability cases) and will again get SSI benefits as soon as possible after letting us know that they have been naturalized. This policy decision also illustrates SSA's commitment to implementing these changes in a way that is fair and causes as little stress as possible for our aged, blind and disabled beneficiaries.
Clearly, SSA and other Federal agencies have faced a huge task in implementing the provisions in the welfare reform legislation.
In conclusion, while we are working to implement the law, we strongly support and hope Congress will act on the Administration's proposal. The provisions relating to noncitizen eligibility for SSI that were contained in welfare reform are unnecessary to further the goal of welfare-to-work. The SSI and Medicaid provisions summarily cut children and disabled individuals off of benefits, putting at risk individuals who are permanent members of our society. The President proposes to restore eligibility for children and those disabled after entry.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss these very important issues. I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have.
1 Section 431 of Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) defines "qualified alien" as lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, aliens whose deportations are withheld, parolees, conditional entrants, and certain aliens who have been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.
2 For example, they receive Social Security benefits but we need to determine whether they have 40 quarters.