Feds: Mailing mix-ups delayed social security cards for Afghan refugees

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Barbara Davidson

Members of the U.S. military and Afghan refugees play soccer at the Fort McCoy U.S. Army base on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 in Fort McCoy, Wis. The fort is one of eight military installations across the country that are temporarily housing the tens of thousands of Afghans who were forced to flee their homeland in August after the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban took control.

MADISON, Wis. — Logistical mailing issues have helped delay social security cards for Afghan refugees across the country, with organizations unable to get cards mailed to people because they have similar names to other refugees or have left military bases, says a spokesperson for the U.S. Social Security Administration.

None of the 36 Afghan refugees currently resettled in Madison since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August have received their cards yet, according to Madison’s refugee resettlement agency, Jewish Social Services.

“It’s a federal issue, and until the Social Security Administration gets it figured out, it’s not going to help our clients,” JSS executive director Dawn Berney said.

While refugees have been able to get temporary 30-day food stamp benefits in Madison, they’re left without a way to access temporary income or their regular food stamp benefits without social security cards. Refugees with a social security number can access temporary income benefits, like Wisconsin Works (W-2) or refugee cash assistance–programs that typically last for eight to nine months.

“They need their social security card to submit the paperwork,” Berney explained. “So they don’t have income at all whatsoever, and that is a problem.”

Mail confusion leads to card delays

Weeks ago, News 3 Investigates asked the U.S. Social Security Administration for additional information about why Afghan refugees were experiencing delays in getting their social security cards.

This week, a spokesperson for the SSA Chicago regional office told News 3 Investigates that the agency had “recently learned” of logistical issues impacting card deliveries for Afghan refugees, involving the Department of Homeland Security and a third-party non-profit, the International Organization of Migration.

“For example, we have heard that some people have very similar or common names, and others have moved off military bases,” SSA regional communications director Doug Nguyen said in an email.

Additionally, some paperwork has been mailed to military bases after Afghan refugees already left the base, Berney told News 3 Investigates.

“I know that one of the issues are that some paperwork is being sent to the Army bases where families aren’t anymore, so whether it’s Fort McCoy or Fort Bliss or Fort Lee, they’re just not there to receive whatever paperwork is arriving. That’s not helping,” Berney said.

The SSA had been working with the DHS and the IOM to mail cards to a centralized address, from which point the IOM had difficulties getting the cards to their final destination.

RELATED: Concerns over medical care, anxious to leave: An Afghan journalist’s plight at Fort McCoy

“While we successfully issued SSN cards for these individuals via EBE, the IOM has not been able to get the cards to all of them,” Nguyen said.

Feds hope custom identifier will resolve issue

The SSA is now addressing the issues by reissuing SSN cards to refugees, this time with an automated unique identifier on the address line of the mailing envelope that is associated with the refugee’s application.

The idea is that the identifier will help IOM then get the cards to the correct refugee, using their current address and mailing back any cards to the SSA that aren’t deliverable.

“I think that will help mitigate it quite a bit,” Berney said when she learned of the solution.

The mix-ups affected refugees who currently hold a Special Immigrant Visa and applied for a social security card through the Enumeration Beyond Entry process, Nguyen said. The SIV is a specialized federal visa program for Afghan and Iraqi individuals who worked for the U.S. federal government providing support and services to troops and other federal government workers.

RELATED: An affordable housing crisis: Afghan refugees in Madison

Nguyen didn’t say how many refugees had been impacted or provide specific data on how many cards had been delayed by the mailing mix-ups. He also didn’t specifically say whether cards had been mailed to the wrong people or lost due to the mix-ups.

Other issues have contributed to delays, Berney previously explained to News 3 Now, including pandemic changes to the application process. It used to be that refugees could get an appointment and receive a card within 24 hours, Berney said. Now, virtual methods have stretched the process longer.

Meanwhile, refugees with temporary food stamp cards could be back to depending on grocery store gift cards if the issue isn’t resolved soon.

“If their cards are not processed with the next month, then they’ll lose that and have to go through the process all over again,” Berney said.

RELATED: At Fort McCoy, Team Rubicon set to withdraw; officials say all Afghan refugees now have ‘winter layers’


Looking for ways to help refugees in Madison?

  • Donate cash, basic grocery or Amazon gift cards to Jewish Social Services or Open Doors for Refugees
  • JSS is also currently looking for volunteers to help refugees move into apartments, particularly volunteers who can help with heavier items like furniture