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.
USCIS spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said her agency processes citizenship applications as quickly as it can and is not responsible for the backlog that results from the delay in background checks.
Rhatigan said requests often stall because questions arising from the applications go unanswered. "There could be a number of different reasons," she said. "It could be a failure to respond or a request for additional information."
The Social Security Administration declined to comment on its decision to end the benefits, saying only that the law requires it to do so seven years after asylum is granted if U.S. citizenship has not been obtained.
That may be, said Jonathan Stein, an attorney for the group that has filed suit, but Congress never intended to cut those granted asylum from humanitarian aid when it approved in 1996 the legislation that provides it.
The benefit provides $603 monthly to single recipients and $904 to couples. Congress assumed that seven years was enough time for applicants to make it through the citizenship process. But the Sept. 11 attacks diverted large numbers of FBI agents to counterterrorism duties, greatly slowing the background checks.
Stein wondered why USCIS, FBI and Social Security officials could not flag citizenship requests from disabled applicants here on asylum. "Their lives depend on this," he said. "If they can't expedite their cases, let's at least continue their SSI until they become citizens."
Kaplan began to receive Supplemental Security Income payments in March 1997, two months after he was granted asylum. A year later, he applied for permanent residency, the first step toward naturalized citizenship. The process should have taken a year. But it took six years, according to Kaplan and his attorneys.
With time running out, Kaplan applied for citizenship as soon as he could in the spring of 2004. Fearing he would miss the deadline, aid workers took his letters and pleas for an expedited process to the Social Security office. "They said there was nothing they could do," Kaplan said in his deposition. His benefits were cut that summer.
Too old and too weak to work, Kaplan said he gets by on $215 a month that he uses for paying rent and $140 in food stamps. Regardless, Kaplan said he loves the United States and does not miss life in Ukraine or Russia, where he also lived.
"The food in grocery stores was rationed . . . and many times, I was told that I could not stay in line for the food because I was Jewish," he said in the deposition. "One winter, two men pushed me down when I was walking in the street.
"I knew that I had to leave Russia," he said in the deposition. "If they did not kill me today, I thought, they would kill me tomorrow."