Suit Seeks to Reinstate Benefits for Immigrants

Displayed on the front windowsill of Shmul Kaplan's modest Levittown apartment are two symbols that the 80-year-old holds dear: a menorah and an American flag.

"I put them here because I want to say that I'm an American Jew," said Kaplan, who was granted asylum here in 1997, after facing frequent and sometimes violent anti-Semitism in Kazakhstan and Russia. His troubles in those countries were compounded since Kaplan, a widower, is an amputee, who lost his right leg and severely injured his left one in a train accident when he just 18.

Since coming to America, he has relied on subsidies and food stamps including about $600 per month in Supplemental Security Income benefits in order to get by.

SSI are federal dollars designed to help disabled and elderly individuals who have little or no income, and who have not worked sufficient years to qualify for Social Security benefits. After an immigrant is in America for seven years, SSI benefits run out unless the person becomes a naturalized citizen.

Kaplan's benefits were cut in 2004 and his case is still pending.

Meanwhile, he must make do with the little money he has.

"When I had the benefits, I could go to Shop Rite and buy all that I need. Now I cannot buy," said Kaplan, whose only child, Lena, lives in Yardley.

A federal class-action lawsuit was filed last month on behalf of Kaplan and others like him. It claims that since the Sept. 11 attacks, FBI security checks have become so backlogged that even after seven years, many individuals cannot become citizens, and thus lose SSI. The suit asks the government to reinstate those benefits until people can become American citizens, according to Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, which is representing Kaplan and his fellow plaintiffs.

More than 5,600 people have seen their benefits cut while they wait for approval, according to the suit, and another 4,500 will see their benefits terminated by the end of fiscal year 2007.

"It is estimated that by 2012, there will be 46,000 people — if we don't do something," stated Bernstein Baker.

She explained that language barriers and health issues could also prevent an immigrant from applying for naturalization on time, and that, too, could lead to a loss of SSI benefits.

The problem "is disproportionally affecting the Jewish community," said Bernstein-Baker, who noted that such refugees tend to be older and hail from the former Soviet Union.

The suit was filed against top officials of the Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration, the FBI, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The National Name Check Program receives more than 67,000 names each week from 70 federal and state agencies that regularly make requests, according to FBI spokesman Paul Bresson. About half of new requests come from USCIS, along with the backlog of some 2.7 million from past years, he said. After Sept. 11, requests for background checks increased.

Kaplan noted that since he lost his SSI benefits in 2004, he has managed on food stamps and $215 per month in welfare. Still, he recognized that struggling financially is not the same as fearing for your safety.

The political climate in Tver, Russia — his last stop before the United States — was dreadful.

"Two boys go behind me and come from both sides and put me on the ground, and I fell into the snow," he said. "They laughed and went away."

Although he is suing for his benefits, Kaplan stressed that he is happy to be in America, where he is free to practice his religion without persecution.

"I am grateful to America," he said. "America saved my life."



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