With the weather cooling down and raindrops gathering on window panes, state government leaders are hoping to reach a consensus soon on whether low-income residents applying for winter heating assistance will need to present their social security numbers.
A state joint legislative committee met Tuesday to review the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program and a proposed amendment requiring those who receive heating to provide their SSNs to state employees. But the legislators ended the meeting without coming to a decision.
Critics of the requirement — who contend that Connecticut’s de facto “no-freeze” policy promises heating for all residents during the winter — said demanding SSNs would exclude undocumented immigrants and legal residents who do not have SSNs, while other government officials said a SSN clause would protect against fraud.
The “no-freeze” policy only applies to people who qualify for it in the first place — that is, legal residents, supporters said.
The issue surfaced last month when a state audit confirmed a whistleblower’s report that the Community Action Agency of New Haven, Inc. — a nonprofit contracted by the state Department of Social Services to distribute fuel aid — had faked social security numbers in its books, thereby potentially granting heating assistance to undocumented immigrants.
Writing in response to the state audit’s findings, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal mentioned two laws that he described as a paradox: one federal law stipulates that non-qualified or illegal non-citizens are not entitled to energy assistance benefits, while another law prohibits CAAs from requiring SSNs to ascertain an applicant’s legal status.
But for the sake of limiting fraud, Blumenthal wrote, agencies are permitted to demand SSNs.
“As a means to prevent fraud, not for determining citizenship or immigration status, the DSS has the authority to require CAAs to obtain the social security numbers of all individuals who receive federal energy assistance benefits,” he wrote in the letter to DSS Commissioner Michael Starkowski.
Drawing on Blumenthal’s legal advice, Starkowski and Office of Policy and Management Secretary Robert Genuario proposed an amendment to Connecticut governor Jodi Rell’s annual application for funding through the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program Allocation Plan.
Although the amendment provides that “non-qualified Aliens” are ineligible for the heating oil funds, it also takes into account the fact that legalized dependents often cannot apply for funding themselves, DSS spokesman David Dearborn said.
Families with both documented and undocumented members can apply for funding under the amendment but will only receive money based on the number of legal citizens in the household, Dearborn said. An undocumented father, a legalized mother and their two legalized children, for example, would count both parents’ income expenses in their application, but when qualifying for eligibility their “household” would consist of only three people.
Given the joint committee’s inability to reach a decision on Tuesday, Dearborn said the DSS commissioner’s office is exploring the possibility of pushing the amendment administratively without relying on legislative approval.
“For years we’ve required social security numbers in the [winter heating assistance] program — it’s nothing new,” Dearborn said. “The skeptic could say we still don’t need to [require SSNs]. We’re saying we need to for anti-fraud purposes … for confirming identities and confirming the income that we are being presented with.”
But State Sen. Edith G. Prague said a SSN requirement could prevent the state from protecting all its legal residents — some of whom have never been issued numbers — even with the amendment’s acknowledgment of households with both legal and illegal residents. Furthermore, SSNs are not the only means of establishing income eligibility; computer technology can now cross-reference food stamp and Medicaid applications to determine whether an individual qualifies for heating assistance, she said.
“There are people who are not illegal, like Cubans and Haitians who are here under asylum, like newborns who don’t get social security numbers for three months or so,” she said. “There was a concern [at the meeting] that there would be people who need energy assistance but were not eligible under the proposal from the department of social services.”
At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Prague said legislators learned that of the 100,000 people who applied for heating assistance with the CAA last year, 300 did not have proper documentation. In the end, only 29 applicants did not have social security numbers and four were undocumented immigrants, she said. The CAA’s computer program can insert placeholder numbers or bypass the SSN field altogether to move the application process along, according to a Sept. 12 New Haven Register article.
Dearborn said the DSS’s investigation into the CAA branch in New Haven is ongoing. CCA Representatives could not be reached for comment.
Although media reports of the controversy following the CAA whistleblower’s allegations have mainly focused on the potential for illegal immigrants to receive heating funds, illegal immigration was a peripheral topic at Tuesday’s meeting in comparison to Democrats’ concerns about the SSN requirements, Prague said.
Laurence Grotheer, spokesman for State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said many people have expressed concerns about SSNs, arguing that they present a privacy and identity-theft problem that the government has previously addressed through legislation prohibiting solicitors from obtaining SSNs. At this point, he said, a SSN requirement would be tantamount to a reversal of policy.
But of the partisan divide in the legislature, Grotheer said “it is and it isn’t” also about illegal immigration.
“[Proponents of the amendment] are trying to prohibit people from getting this fuel assistance and [saying] that requiring their social security numbers … will help them verify economic eligibility,” he said. “But it’s an end-run around. They’re not going to come right out and say they hate illegal immigrants.”
It is not the role of state governments and agencies to enforce federal immigration law, he said.
Another state government insider, who asked to remain anonymous, said deliberations have stalled because legislators, though opposed to the amendment, are not willing to take political risks to present alternative solutions that would release the program from the constrictions of federal government funding.
“This whole thing could be cleared up [if legislators] could say, ‘OK, we’re going to appropriate state money to take care of the illegal and poor,’ but nobody talks about that because that would take a political risk, so they’re not at that point yet,” the government member said. “They just say, ‘We don’t like it, we’re uncomfortable with it,’ and they basically didn’t do anything about it [at Tuesday’s committee meeting].”
Prague said the state is exploring the possibility of setting aside state funds for the nonprofit “Operation Fuel” program, which provides heating assistance to those who do not qualify for federal aid. Last year, Connecticut provided over $60 million in fuel assistance to 84,000 low-income households, and Operation Fuel supplied $859,153 to 2,913 households during the cold season spanning 2005 and 2006.