U.S. Sued Over Dropping of Benefits for Disabled

Shmul Kaplan, 80, is getting by every month in a Philadelphia suburb on $140 in food stamps and $215 that he uses to pay rent.
Shmul Kaplan, 80, is getting by every month in a Philadelphia suburb on $140 in food stamps and $215 that he uses to pay rent. (Photos By Joan Fairman Kanes -- Philadelphia Inquirer)
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 21, 2006

For eight years, Shmul Kaplan lived alone in a suburban Philadelphia housing complex with hardly any furniture and barely enough food to eat. Two years ago, the government told the amputee he would have to make do with less.

Kaplan, who is from Ukraine, lost his $603 in Supplemental Security Income after he missed a seven-year deadline to become a U.S. citizen. The clock started ticking after he was granted asylum in 1997.

A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in Pennsylvania recently on behalf of people such as Kaplan, 80, contends that they are not responsible for missing the deadline. Kaplan's citizenship application is among hundreds of thousands awaiting background checks by the FBI, a mountainous backlog that grew after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than 6,000 physically handicapped people who were granted asylum have had benefits cut as they wait, according to the suit.

"The Social Security Administration . . . projects that over 46,000 immigrants will be cut off from SSI in the years 2006-2012 as a result of delays in granting citizenship and the operation of the seven year rule," the lawsuit says.

The suit's plaintiffs include Eshetu Meri, 51, of Fairfax, a blind man who escaped from Ethiopia, where he was targeted for advocating democracy; Tasim Mandija, 80, of Philadelphia, a native of Albania who suffers from prostate cancer and neuropathy; and Rouzbeh Aliaghaei, 17, an Iranian who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that resulted in autism, seizures, mental retardation and an enlarged head. He came to the United States in 1998 when his parents escaped political persecution.

Kaplan, who is Jewish, claimed religious persecution and was granted asylum in January 1997. He was given humanitarian aid because one of his legs was severed when he ran to catch a train at age 18, slipped on ice and slid beneath the wheels. The other leg was so severely fractured that it arcs like a bow.

"I have a very sick leg," Kaplan said in a telephone interview. "It has a lot of fractures, and now it is a curved leg. My stump, it is not a normal stump. Sometimes I have to see a doctor. They take away my benefits, and, of course, it is very bad for me."

Others in the lawsuit declined to be interviewed, fearing that speaking out might interfere with the progress of their citizenship applications, or that they would be sought out for harm.

The suit was filed against top officials of the Social Security Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) unit of DHS, the Justice Department and the FBI.

The National Name Check Program at the FBI receives more than 67,000 requests for background checks each week. Half the requests come from the USCIS, said Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman.

When requests from private entities are included, the total reaches several million each year, Bresson said. The USCIS is the FBI's biggest customer, accounting for about 128,000 background-check requests per month, plus 2.7 million that are backlogged from years past, Bresson said.

The FBI has struggled for years with a growing backlog of such requests from all entities. The Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year that, for immigration cases alone, 113,000 background checks had been pending for more than six months.

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