JFCS supports legal fight to protect emigres benefits

The suit, Sutich vs. Callahan, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, charges that the welfare reform act signed last August violates the constitutional rights of indigent legal immigrants who are disabled, blind and elderly by unfairly barring them from receiving SSI benefits.

It asks the federal court to issue an injunction halting enforcement of Section 402 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which cuts off SSI to most legal permanent residents of the United States.

"The termination of SSI benefits affects thousands of elderly and infirm Jews from the former Soviet Union," says Gayle Zahler, director of emigre services at JFCS.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that people are at risk of dying because of this legislation. People in their 80s and 90s face hunger and homelessness because they have no other resources available to them."

Throughout February and March, the Social Security Administration sent out letters to all noncitizens receiving SSI, telling them that their aid will be cut off in August or September if they cannot prove that they are U.S. citizens.

Many of the legal refugees who got the letters described them as "death notices" because they are so fearful of what will happen if their minimal benefits are cut.

Mariya Labunskaya, 78, and her husband, Mark Solovey, 85, are typical of the emigres who will lose their benefits. They emigrated from Moscow in June 1992, and thus are eligible to become citizens in June 1997.

With the backlog of people applying for citizenship, however, there is no guarantee that the INS will schedule their exams in time to avoid losing aid. They also have real concerns about passing the written and oral citizenship tests.

Solovey, a naval engineer in Russia, suffered hearing and memory loss defending Leningrad during World War II. He can read lips in Russian, but his hearing loss makes it impossible to learn English.

Understandably, Solovey is not optimistic about passing the citizenship exam. He has filed for a waiver based on his disabilities, but waivers are not granted automatically.

Solovey and Labunskaya are both taking JFCS' eight-week citizenship preparation course for seniors.

"I study and study, but as soon as I think I've learned 10 things and close the book, I've forgotten everything," says Labunskaya, a former bookkeeper.

"It's not that I don't want to learn, but it's difficult at this age. We're capable people, but it just doesn't stick like it used to."

As the date draws closer, Solovey and Labunskaya are increasingly anxious.

They subsist on $1,100 a month between them and pay $760 in rent for a nonsubsidized apartment. "We've lost all ability to sleep at night," says Labunskaya, who worries about becoming homeless if they lose their SSI.

Says JFCS' Zahler: "So many of our clients feel angry and frustrated by this legislation. They've been following all the rules, but suddenly the rules have changed. We're working with all the other religious and ethnic groups in the city and hoping this class action lawsuit will bring relief to our clients."

The next step in the lawsuit is a preliminary injunction that, if granted, will bar the Social Security Administration from denying aid to lawful permanent U.S. residents.

"We feel that the statute is unconstitutional on its face because it discriminates against individuals based solely on their citizenship status." says Jeff Hessekiel of the law firm of Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

"We feel that it is a direct violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause, which protects all persons from discrimination at the hands of the government,"