Elderly immigrants hit hard by US meltdown

February 13th, 2009 - 12:42 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Feb 13 (IANS) It was the dream of many elderly people from around the world, including India, to go to the US, stay with their children or other relatives, work and later get decent pensions. All that is over now in the times of financial meltdown and pink slips.
Unable to find work or receive retirement benefits, many older immigrants are ending up becoming a burden on their already hard-pressed relatives.

Amid layoffs and financial problems, relatives who sponsored them for green cards and agreed to be financially responsible for them find it increasingly difficult to do so, the Los Angeles Times said in a report.

Mahesh Mehta, 65, came from India three years ago to live with his brother and his family in Cerritos, California.

“Everyone says, ‘Come, come, come,’” he told the Los Angeles Times, adding that now that he is in the US, he is worried his family members might be wondering, “Why did you come?”

Mehta said he looked for work for nearly three years — at motels, shops and gas stations — before finally finding a part-time job as a school crossing guard. He earns $400 a month and pays $300 of that to his brother for his portion of the rent.

Mehta said his life in India was “poor but beautiful”.

As he donned his orange whistle and reflective vest, Mehta said America is not what he expected.

“I never thought I would be 65 and working,” he said. “It was never in my mind.”

Shaukat Ali, 70, who came here from Pakistan three years ago to stay with his daughter, said he pays for his family, his health and now for the economy. “There is no alternative but to ask our God,” he said.

Ali wanted to reunite with relatives in the US and work for a few years before retiring. But he has not been able to find a job in three years and feels he has become a burden on his daughter and son-in-law.

“They are not in a position to support me,” he said. “Dollars are not growing on trees.”

Initially, Ali’s daughter Tahira and son-in-law had little trouble supporting them. She sold saris and dresses at a clothing store; he repaired jewellery at an adjacent shop. But recently, the jewellery store’s owners said they were closing their doors.

Tahira said she is now worried about paying the mortgage. Nevertheless, she said she cannot turn her back on her responsibility. “They are a burden, but they are my parents,” she said. “I can’t abandon them.”

The report noted that federal law limits access to benefits for elderly legal immigrants, making it difficult for them to get Supplemental Security Income, health coverage or cash assistance.

Once they become citizens, obtaining federal benefits becomes much easier. Restrictions on assistance often result in even more pressure on family members in the US.

“The eligibility requirements for elderly immigrants are really draconian,” Gerald McIntire, directing attorney at the National Senior Law Center, was quoted as saying.

“Even people who have demonstrated need are often not able to qualify for subsistence benefits.”

The number of elderly immigrants is small: About 58,500 people aged 65 and older received their green cards in fiscal year 2007, out of more than one million newcomers, the Times said quoting data from the Office of Immigration Statistics.

But Rick Oltman of Californians for Population Stabilization said taxpayers shouldn’t have to support any elderly immigrants — legal or not. Family members should honour the pledge they make to be financially responsible for the new immigrants, he said.

“Nobody wants to leave senior citizens out in the cold,” he said. “But the government needs to do everything it can to enforce these agreements. The last resort for supporting these immigrants should be the taxpayer.”

The financial problems, of course, are apart from the difficulties the elderly immigrants face in the land of their dreams. Many senior immigrants struggle with the loss of their independence and find it harder than younger immigrants to assimilate to a new culture, customs and language. They often do not have friends or any social network.

“They are very isolated,” said Farhana Shahid, who helps older immigrants in applying for federal benefits through the South Asian Network.

“They think they are going to have a great life. When they come over here, there is nothing for the older people.”

Relatives here often beg their elderly family members to come to the US but change their minds once they arrive, Shahid said.

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