Elderly immigrants find life in U.S. a tough go

Published on February 12th, 2009

With government aid limited and the economy straining the finances of the relatives who sponsored them, many are thinking increasingly wistfully of their homelands.

By Anna Gorman
February 12, 2009

Several times a day, Shaukat Ali prays in the garden of his daughter’s Artesia home — for his family and his health and now, for the economy.

"There is no alternative but to ask our God," said Ali, 70.

Like many elderly immigrants, Ali dreamed of reuniting with relatives in the United States and working a few years before retiring. But since arriving here legally from Pakistan three years ago, Ali has not been able to find a job and said he has become a heavy bur- den on his daughter and son-in-law.

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

Adjusting to life in the U.S. can be difficult for any newcomer, but elderly immigrants have an even tougher time. Unable to find work or receive retirement benefits, many older immigrants depend on family members for financial support. And with the economy collapsing, relatives who sponsored them for green cards and agreed to be financially responsible for them are increasingly having trouble doing so.

"Economic resources are shared at the household level," said Steven Wallace, professor at the UCLA School of Public Health, who has written about older immigrants. "If one or more of the parents loses a job, that squeezes everybody in the family."

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 U.S.

"The eligibility requirements for elderly immigrants are really draconian," said Gerald McIntire, directing attorney at the National Senior Law Center. "Even people who have demonstrated need are often not able to qualify for subsistence benefits."

Sometimes, even if senior immigrants are eligible for assistance, they are reluctant to ask for it because of the perceived shame or stigma.

The number of senior immigrants is small: About 58,500 people age 65 and older received their green cards in fiscal year 2007, out of more than 1 million newcomers, according to 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 honor 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."

Ali and his wife, Razia, 63, moved in with their daughter and son-in-law in 2006. Ali, who held a government job and owned a home in Pakistan, looked for work at numerous hotels and shops in Artesia, but he said the owners saw his white hair and "made excuses." Soon after his arrival, Ali was diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes. He gave up the job search.

Despite Ali’s inability to find work, his daughter and son-in-law had little trouble supporting them. She sold saris and dresses at a clothing store; he repaired jewelry at an adjacent shop. They were remodeling their home and had started planning for their teenage sons’ college education.

But recently, the jewelry store’s owners announced that they were closing their doors. Now, Ali’s daughter, Tahira, said she is worried about paying the mortgage. Nevertheless, Tahira Ali 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."

Another immigrant, Ja Choi, 75, came to the U.S. in 2003 and lived with her daughter in Los Angeles for two years when she first arrived. Although she found an inexpensive place to live at a senior housing complex and part-time work at the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, Choi said she still struggled to pay her bills and wished she could retire.

Choi will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship this spring, so she spends four hours every weekday learning English and studying for the exam.

"This country doesn’t support recent immigrants, just U.S. citizens," she said through a Korean interpreter. "It has been really hard."

Her daughter, a self-employed fashion designer, said she would like to be able to care for her mother again but that business has been slow.

"I feel guilty," said Robin Yoon, 47. "I am really sad I cannot support her enough. . . . I think her health is deteriorating because she has to work."

In addition to financial problems, senior immigrants struggle with the loss of their independence when they arrive in the U.S. Without driver’s licenses, many rely on their family members to take them to the doctor and the market. They have a harder time than younger immigrants assimilating to a new culture, customs and language. And they often don’t have friends or any social network.

"They are very isolated," said Farhana Shahid, who assists older immigrants in applying for federal benefits and helps provide therapy to them 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 U.S. but change their minds once they arrive, Shahid said. The relatives may also be eager to receive some financial support from the new immigrant.

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

"Everyone says, ‘Come, come, come,’ " Mehta, 65, said through a Hindi translator. Now that he is here, Mehta worries that 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 often worries about what will happen to him and his wife if his daughter loses her home. He feels guilty for adding stress to the already strained finances of his daughter and son-in-law.

To keep his mind busy, Ali gardens in his daughter’s backyard. And he daydreams about Pakistan.

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