Many of the people who've recently found refuge in the United States are confronting the realities of the American welfare system. In accordance with a 1996 welfare reform law, elderly and disabled refugees receiving government benefits must become U.S. citizens within seven years, or they will lose their monthly checks. This year, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits will end for about 8,500 refugees nationwide.
Late last year, when 62-year-old Houa Lee got a letter saying her SSI benefits were about to be cut, she was scared and confused. A Hmong refugee who fled her native country after the Vietnam War, Ms. Lee came to Fresno just after the welfare reform act became law. She hasn't yet become an American citizen, so in October, her $660 monthly check stopped coming.
"I'm upset when they cut [it]," she said. "How can I pay for my rent, my food? You know that everything is money. Every day now I don't have the money to pay for rent and food."
Ms. Lee sobs as she talks about her recent struggles. A serious back injury prevents her from working and so, Ms. Lee attends English classes several days a week, hoping eventually to pass the citizenship interview and get her SSI benefits restored.
"I can't speak English," she said. "I attend the class to learn, but can't speak English and do not understand what the teacher is saying."
Houa Lee sat in the front row as instructor Holly Mattos teaches a room full of Hmong refugees the basics of the American flag. Ms. Mattos said that many of her students want to become citizens, but have a hard time grasping the language, even after months of instruction.
"Their English level is very beginning so it may take them a long time or they may never get to the intermediate level where they can understand the questions that might be asked in an interview," she said.
Lydia Sukhar, 68, who left the Ukraine to avoid religious persecution, is still two years away from losing her SSI benefits. She is studying hard in hopes of becoming a citizen before her time runs out. "I worry but I hope God is going to help me to pass the test," she said.
Ms. Sukhar said she's having a hard time learning English as a senior citizen.
"Even 10 years ago it was much easier because I could remember better," she said. "Now I study and I forget very easily or I write and I don't remember how to spell."
Older refugees like Houa Lee and Lydia Sukhar need more than seven years to navigate the citizenship process, according to Reverend Sophia DeWitt, an advocate with the non-profit Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
"We have welcomed them as legal immigrants to this country," she said. "We need to continue to extend that humanitarian hand of friendship to them at this time and not cut it off."
Lowell Kepke is a spokesman for the U.S. Social Security Administration, which oversees SSI benefits.
"This is the law that Congress passed that puts the seven year limit [on benefits]," he said. "There's no room for making any changes to that unless the law would change."
That's not likely. Fresno's Congressional representatives, like most other members of Congress, support the 1996 welfare reform legislation. For refugees who do lose their SSI benefits, California and other states offer help through a cash assistance program.
Laotian refugee Pa Kantalee was able to get state assistance, but he said he had to borrow money from a friend to pay rent while waiting for his paperwork to be processed. "I feel better now because I have income to support myself and to pay back my friend," he added.
Government officials said that the best way to help these refugees is not to re-write welfare reform but for community groups to work with them individually and teach them English so they can become citizens.