By OSCAR CORRAL | Miami Herald
MIAMI - A little-noticed change in federal benefit rules has kept scores of older Cuban immigrants from collecting disability checks that are considered one of America’s last-ditch social safety nets, according to a pair of public service lawyers.
People like Barbara Diaz, who arrived from Cuba five years ago, are left with little or no income, say the lawyers who are trying to address the situation.
“I don’t regret coming to this country because it’s the best in the world,” said Diaz, 71. “But I thought I would have this help, and I don’t.”
Diaz was counting on receiving Supplemental Security Income, or SSI - monthly benefits of up to $570 paid to disabled or older people whose incomes are low enough to qualify for the checks.
But she and others have been denied the help because of an obscure change in policy made in 2001 by the Social Security Administration, which oversees SSI.
The agency ruled that it would provide SSI benefits to Cuban immigrants only if they arrived via the dry-foot policy, which basically means they fled successfully to the United States without a visa and often by rafts or go-fast boats. Cubans who, like Diaz, arrived on tourist visas but then overstayed them were denied.
Since then, dozens of people who came on visas have had their benefits initially approved but then rejected by the Social Security agency.
Lawyers Jose Fons and Lizel Gonzalez of Legal Services of Greater Miami said Cuban clients who have been denied benefits have flooded their offices the past two years. They now have almost 200 clients in the same predicament.
“Immigration law is supposed to serve this community, but the government is leaving them out to dry,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said the Cuban government seems to be sending its retired and disabled citizens to the United States as tourists.
For example, Nuris Morales, 68, said when she left Cuba in 2000, officials there said “it was the year of the elderly and they were giving visas to the elderly in the United States.”
Lawyers for such immigrants believe their clients are entitled to the monthly SSI benefits because they were given residency under the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act.
But while the Cubans await court rulings on their benefits, Miami-Dade County has partially picked up the tab for some of them, giving them $220 a month in welfare funds for rent assistance.
In 2000, the county distributed just $1.3 million in this last-resort aid. Last year, the number was $2.07 million, an increase of nearly 60 percent. Payments over the past five years total $8.4 million.
As of Dec. 31, Miami-Dade had registered 1,153 active clients receiving the monthly $220, an amount that has not been raised in 20 years and which Gonzalez and Fons say is ridiculously meager.
People who receive the aid must sign an agreement to repay the money once they begin receiving SSI benefits. But Gonzalez said the county never gets repaid if people lose their court cases.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration, said it does not distinguish in status between Cuban immigrants who got residency through the “wet foot/dry foot” policy or those who overstayed tourist visas.
The immigrant lawyers hope to persuade the Social Security Administration to adopt the same view.
“We are working to resolve the issue of their immigration status, and we have to work with the Department of Homeland Security to resolve that,” said Social Security spokeswoman Patti Patterson.
Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, said it’s the Department of Homeland Security’s job to clarify whether Cubans who overstay tourist visas should be considered Cuban/Haitian entrants.
Cuban-American legislators have been cautious on the issue.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen did not return phone calls seeking comment. U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart would only say he is looking into it.
“I will do whatever I can, but I need to get a clear idea,” Diaz-Balart said. “We’re taking that very seriously.”
Caught in the legal wrangle are the older Cubans who say they need the $570 to live. They generally have no income other than the county’s infusion and whatever else they earn doing odd jobs.
Diaz, who prays every morning to San Lazaro and Santa Barbara, said she fell while leaving a job cleaning houses two years ago and tore hip ligaments. She said she leaves her apartment only to walk to a nearby grocery store.
Diaz is lucky in some respects. She lives in a studio apartment behind her son and his wife in Hialeah, Fla. But like many of the Cubans interviewed, she said she suffers bouts of deep depression because she never wanted to be a burden to her son, and she doesn’t have any friends in her adopted country.
“I pray to San Lazaro to take care of me,” she said, her hands clutched before the altar of saints she smuggled out of Cuba. “They give me at least some comfort.”
Estefania Perdigon, 67, came from Cuba in 2000 and overstayed her tourist visa. She became a resident under the Cuban Adjustment Act, applied for SSI benefits and was rejected.A couple of years ago, she married Salvador Sarzo, 82, a Cuban who is a naturalized citizen and receives benefits. Sarzo is disabled now, and she cares for him.On a recent morning, after getting Sarzo out of bed, Perdigon talked about the challenges of living on the $569 a month her husband collects. They must cover every monthly bill with that, including $119 in subsidized rent.She said if it weren’t for the $165 in food stamps they both get monthly, they would be destitute. Their furniture is donated, and they don’t own a car.“We’re barely getting by,” she said. “I need those benefits.“Fons offered the case of another client, Maria Gonzalez, 74.But when Gonzalez was sought out for an interview recently at her downtrodden Miami apartment, it was discovered she had been evicted, her possessions tossed into the street.