Tens of thousands of New York’s immigrants are bracing for the loss of disability benefits and Food Stamps during the next few months. As advocates scramble to assess the damage and roll back the worst of the cuts, they are seeing some disturbing first signs of distress. Caseworkers at nonprofit organizations report receiving letters from elderly immigrants considering suicide. And some immigrant victims of domestic violence are contemplating returning to their batterers because they cannot otherwise support themselves without Food Stamps.

In New York City, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the former Soviet Union, China, and Korea will be among the hardest hit.

Between April and August 22, food stamps and SSI will be terminated for legal immigrants unless they become citizens or prove that they fit into one of the categories of non-citizens who are exempt–refugees who have been here five years or less, veterans of the U.S. military, or people who have worked in the U.S. for at least 10 years. About 80,000 immigrants statewide will not be eligible for any of the exemptions, estimates the New York Immigration Coalition, an organization of 120 immigrant advocacy groups and service providers.

Citizenship applications can now take as long as nine months due to backlogs resulting from criminal background checks, says Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesperson Mark Thorn. And a recently announced INS rule forbidding legal immigrants with mental impairments, retardation or Alzheimer’s disease from taking an oath of allegiance means that citizenship will be off limits for some of the most vulnerable immigrants.


Since February, the Social Security Administration has sent letters to 130,000 legal immigrants across the state–110,000 of them in New York City–who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), an income support program for people with disabilities, notifying them that they could lose their benefits starting this month. Approximately 74,000 of the statewide total are elderly and disabled; the other 56,000 are children and non-elderly adults with disabilities. Under SSI, a single person in New York state receives $556 a month.

In addition, the state is scheduled to cut off Food Stamps later this year for 250,000 legal immigrants, 200,000 of whom live in the city. Food Stamp benefits average $80 per person per month and $240 per family.

An alliance of public interest groups, including the New York Legal Assistance Group, the Legal Aid Society, the Center for Disability Advocacy Rights, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, is preparing to file a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of legal immigrants against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The lawsuit will contend that the new welfare law violates the Fifth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by discriminating against legal immigrants in the administration of benefits.


Last month, Governor George Pataki obtained a waiver from the Clinton Administration which allows counties to extend the food stamp cut-off date from April until August. While some counties won’t take advantage of the option, Mayor Giuliani does plan to use the waiver for New York County, says Human Resources Administration spokesperson Renelda Higgins Walker.

The waiver is a good first step, says New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Margie McHugh. “But no one should be fooled. It does nothing to help us with the long-term picture.”

“It’s not appropriate to give the governor kudos on this,” says Liz Krueger of the Community Food Resource Center. Pataki is trying to claim the waiver is good for immigrants, she says, but “these people will get screwed sooner or later.”

Pataki included an item in his state bud-get that would provide $352 a month in non-cash assistance to elderly and disabled immigrants who lose more than $550 a month in SSI benefits. The program would pay for necessities such as rent, food and medical bills. To be eligible, however, immigrants will have to spend down all their savings and prove they are destitute.

McHugh’s coalition is asking Pataki for a food stamp contingency plan and a “seamless transition” for immigrants moving from SSI to the proposed non-cash alternative. It’s unfathomable, says McHugh, that 130,000 elderly and disabled people “are supposed to rise out of their wheel chairs” to re-apply for relief. But Pataki, who has appealed to President Clinton for a reinstatement of benefits, has said he considers the plight of legal immigrants a federal problem that should be solved with federal dollars. Giuliani has so far not committed any city dollars, says Immigration Coalition spokesperson Mark Lewis.

Kalpana, an Indian woman in her mid-thirties who asked that her last name not be used, endured four years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband after emigrating here in 1991. “He hit me and he hit our son,” she says. “He would lock me up when he went out. He gave me no keys.” She fled her batterer and entered the shelter system in 1995; she thought her nightmare of domestic abuse was over. Now, faced with the loss of her Food Stamps and not knowing how she will feed her 4-year-old, Kalpana says she might have to return to her abuser.

Inna Arolovich, who helps run a Manhattan-based advocacy group for Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, says she has received thousands of letters since news of the cut-off began circulating. Many of them are frightening. One elderly woman wrote: “I don’t have any choice [but] suicide. I measured already–and I am short and can drown in my bathtub.” The neighbor of another woman who attempted suicide the night before a naturalization interview wrote: “That night…she cut blood vessels and ligaments on hands and legs. When emergency came, she was in blood bath.”

“This is government-assisted suicide,” says Arolovich. “These people are Holocaust survivors and people who were persecuted in Stalin’s gulag. Now they are persecuted by the American government.” After attaining American citizenship 11 years ago, she says that for the first time in her life, “I am ashamed to be an American.”

Adam Fifield is a freelance writer based in New York.