Widows and Orphans

Each evening, as the sun settles behind the western mountains, a group of five to seven older women gather on a park bench in downtown El Paso. They are guests of a shelter sponsored by the Catholic Diocese. They will spend a month in this shelter, a clean, though simple place. There will be very little privacy, lots of noise (there are families with children here, too), and, mostly, more free time than is good for the heart or soul.

In the main, they are widows, formerly married to American citizens or legal permanent residents. As such, they are the beneficiaries of the social security system that their spouses had paid into, with each pay check, over many years.

They are also Mexican nationals who, as they live in Mexico, must establish a “lawful presence” to satisfy a bizarre Social Security Administration requirement that denies benefits to non-citizen survivors living outside the USA (read “widows and orphans”). To establish a lawful presence, they must spend 30 days, every six months, in the USA—or report, once a month, to a Social Security Administration office.

All of this for a $200 check, which would seem not worth the trouble, unless, of course, you are a poor widow or orphan.

They are good-natured women; the evening is brightened by their laughter. All the same, this latest silliness of the government confounds them. One of them, with all 75 years of her dignity gathered around her like a glorious robe, wonders if she will be able to continue to come here. “It is only $ 200; but it was what my husband had left for me.”

Another woman comes north with her grandchildren, orphaned by the early death of their father and their mother. She herself is slowly losing her sight, and is not sure that she can make this trip many more times. “We live too far away from the SSA office, so every six months I have to come to El Paso for a month. The children live from these funds, but I just don’t know if I can do this trip once I am blind.”

The conversation shifts from the serious silliness of governments to that of the evening’s soap opera. The characters in the soap opera play out ridiculous scenarios that are offensive in their vulgarity. But the women laugh at the characters, and listen carefully to see how this episode will turn out. The silliness on the television makes some sense. The silliness of those responsible for managing the common good of all—our government—is harder to parse.

(John Boucher does a fine job of plumbing the hardships that this requirement causes survivors at http://www.annunciationhouse.org/news_winter2005_lawful_en.html)

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