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Legal Immigrant Welfare Heads for NY's Highest Court

February 12, 2008

Albany, NY - Thousands of legal immigrants and refugees in New York were left "out in the cold" by changes in federal immigration rules, and their welfare rights are headed to the state's highest court, the New York Court of Appeals. At issue is whether New York state will supplement local benefits for legal immigrants who are elderly or have disabilities and do not qualify for federal aid, and whose local benefits do not cover their basic needs.

Barbara Weiner with the Empire Justice Center is a lawyer for the legal immigrants who were made ineligible for federal Supplemental Security Income.

"The problem is that the public assistance benefit levels are about half the federal SSI benefit level. New York state has always supplemented those benefits because it determined the federal SSI benefit level was insufficient to maintain elderly and disabled people."

The plaintiffs have won State Supreme Court and Appellate Court rulings. The courts ruled that New York must provide basic food, clothing and shelter for the impoverished immigrants, despite a dissenting opinion urging new legislation to reaffirm that right. Last week the plaintiffs served notice of judgment to the office of state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, which had no immediate comment, but the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance says it will challenge the decision in the Court of Appeals.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Boris Khrapunskiy, a 101-year-old former Soviet refugee. He and approximately 7,000 other lawful immigrants and political refugees lost federal benefits after changes in welfare and immigration law, spearheaded by the Clinton administration in 1996. Weiner says the net result is welfare discrimination based on national origin.

"At the same time the welfare laws were being reformed, there were also changes in the immigration law that were very draconian in terms of people who were legally here, and a decision that really supports immigrants' access to benefits, these are not necessarily going to be very popular decisions."

The plaintiffs are also being represented by the Legal Aid Society and the New York Legal Assistance Group. At issue are potential supplements of up to $300 per month, which are pending a final court decision.

Robert Knight/Kevin Clay, Public News Service - NY