09 Nov Thousands of Florida elderly, disabled lose benefits in legal and political snarl
WEST PALM BEACH — Ofelia Pimentel, 77, doesn’t have words to express how worrisome the past four months have been – at least not in English.
Pimentel, a Cuban refugee, lost her $674 federal Supplemental Security Income check this summer basically because she doesn’t speak English.
She is one of hundreds of elderly or disabled refugees in Florida to lose their benefits recently.
“I would love to speak the language and I have taken classes and tried to learn,” she said in Spanish. “I lament not having come here earlier. I would love to communicate more and share more with Americans. But after the age of 60, it is difficult to learn a new language.”
Pimentel came from Cuba in 2000. The federal benefit she received covers people who are elderly or disabled, who fled political persecution and violence in other countries and are poor. The aid lasts only several years, after which the recipients must become citizens to continue receiving aid.
Individuals seeking citizenship must pass a written and oral exam in English. The questions test language proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history and civics. People can wait until they have been in the country at least 15 years, after which they can take the test in their native language. But they cannot receive SSI benefits for that long.
Pimentel said that with help she recently wrote to President Obama, asking him to make an exception for the elderly regarding the English proficiency test. “He answered and said he sympathized with immigrants and would take steps to help us, but so far nothing has happened,” she said.
“We sympathize,” said Sharon Scheidhauer, regional spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “But there is nothing we can do. Those regulations are written by Congress, and only Congress can change them.”