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Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) infuriated Democratic leaders and advocacy groups this week by singlehandedly blocking an extension of aid to 5,600 disabled or elderly refugees.
The program expired last week, meaning government checks will stop for those currently eligible for Supplemental Security Income until the program is renewed.
Paul is demanding an investigation into the program after two Iraqi refugees were arrested on terror charges in Kentucky earlier this year.
"They were invited through the refugee program and were on welfare," Paul said of the terror suspects in a statement provided to Roll Call. "This incident alone raises serious questions about the system through which they came to the United States and I am insisting on a full investigation on our practice of providing welfare to refugees."
Democratic aides, however, say the terror suspects arrested in Bowling Green, Ky., did not receive anything from the program addressed by the bill, but instead received cash benefits from a separate, unrelated program for refugees.
Supplemental Security Income goes to a limited group of refugees who are elderly or disabled, including the deaf and the blind. And the bill itself only addresses those refugees who have passed a seven-year deadline to become citizens — a requirement from the welfare reform legislation that passed in the 1990s. Passing the citizenship test is sometimes unrealistic for elderly, deaf or blind refugees, advocates say.
Galen Carey, a vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said that Paul's move blocking the aid, which Carey said averages about $670 a month, could send disabled and elderly refugees into homeless shelters.
"It's ironic because these refugees are people who have been victims of terrorism and persecution," he said. "We're just going to leave them on the street? It's not right."
Carey dismissed concerns that there could be disabled or elderly terrorists getting the checks.
"The U.S. refugee resettlement program is one of the most vigorous in the world," he said.
Carey said the refugee program already faced much tighter restrictions after 9/11, and he said the one case in Kentucky is not a good reason to shut down benefits for people receiving them now.
"This bill is not about terrorism, it is about elderly, disabled refugees being able to literally survive," added Kevin Appleby, director of Migration and Refugee Policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Our elected officials should know the difference."
The one-year extension of the program would be offset by a $30 fee on diversity visas, with a net reduction in the deficit of $24 million, Democrats said.