Can refugees get disability benefits?

As a lawyer who represents many of the small percentage of refugees in Oregon who seek disability benefits, I am often asked about them.  Here are some commonly asked questions and answers.

What is the definition of a refugee?

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides that a refugee is an individual who must have left his or her home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group affiliation, or political opinion.

  • What percent of the world’s refugees are resettled in the United States?

In 2013, of the world’s 11.7 million refugees, the United States accepted for resettlement 2.3%.

  • What is the process for a refugee to be accepted into the U.S.?
  1. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) interviews refugees in camps and checks their information for accuracy, collects data and does biometric screening for some refugees.
  2. For all refugees recommended for resettlement in the United States, the refugee is vetted by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Immigration Services (USCIS).
  3. If a refugee meets the criteria for application and there are no red flags, he is interviewed in person by a USCIS officer and fingerprints are collected.  If there are any security concerns, the process is halted.
  4. If he is recommended by the USCIS for resettlement here, he must undergo a medical screening and be cleared of any public health concerns or referred for treatment.
  5. The Refugee Data Center tries to match refugees with a resettlement agency, which is mandatory for refugees hoping for entry.
  6. Throughout this process, pending applications continue to be checked against terrorist databases.
  7. Prior to coming here, the refugee is again screened by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and must undergo a security clearance procedure.
  8. The refugee must promise to repay the U.S. for all travel costs.
  • What happens once a refugee enters the U.S.?
  1. He must undergo further medical evaluation.
  2. He is expected to find a job within 6 months of arrival.
  3. He can apply for a permanent resident alien status after one year.
  4. He can apply for U.S. citizenship after he has lived in the U.S. for five years.
  5. In most states, he receives some financial assistance for 90 days after arrival but once that assistance is over, food stamps is often the only benefit that a refugee may receive.
  • Are refugees eligible for social security disability benefits?

Refugees are eligible for SSI benefits only, and only for a period of seven years after arrival in the United States.

  • What if a refugee’s “disability” is mental health?

The health screening is primarily aimed at detecting infectious disease.  Mental health issues are difficult for examining physicians to identify in a screening. Moreover, while admitting to a mental illness carries far less stigma in the United States than it once did, in Iraq, for example, mental illness has been a basis for long-term commitment of political dissidents to “psychiatric” institutions.  Thus refugees are not likely to volunteer that they suffer from a mental illness.  The best evidence of mental health for refugees comes from treating psychiatrists trained in cultural differences who have access to translators with mental health training, such as at Harborview in Seattle or the Intercultural Psychiatry Program (IPP) at OHSU.  In such cases, mental health may be a basis for finding a refugee disabled.