Man in Social Security limbo


August 2, 2008 - 7:22PM

Mesa man in Social Security limbo

Beth Lucas, Tribune

Ken Tabar just wants to work.

But even though the 24-year-old Mesa man is a legal citizen - he legally can't get a job.

Tabar was born in Korea, but adopted at the age of six when his Army parents were serving overseas. In 1989 he was naturalized as a citizen, and he's grown up an American.

In May, Tabar applied for a new Social Security card, after losing his first card. He said he had been offered a job making $10 an hour and had plans to begin school at Mesa Community College to work toward a degree in veterinary science.

But that's when new and more strict laws put in place since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought him news that has left him struggling to get by: His lost Social Security card was based on his original status in this country, which was as a permanent resident with a green card.

Since he was naturalized as a citizen, his status has changed, but his family didn't know they needed to update his status in the system.

In the past, it's possible he could have still gotten his new card based on his basic identification, Social Security officials said. But changes made since the terrorist attacks require that people are issued only permanent Social Security cards based on current status - an effort meant to prevent people who aren't supposed to be here from overstaying. That means Tabar must prove he's naturalized by bringing in his official paperwork.

The problem: His family has also lost track of his naturalization paper and he only has a photocopy. It's left Tabar in limbo: Even though officials can see in their databases that he is a citizen and has a history of working in this country, they can't give him the card that will allow him to work. He paid $380 in July when he ordered a new official naturalization document, but could still wait at least a few more months before he can start earning money. Worst case scenario: It could take 13 months for his paperwork to get processed.

"I've been a citizen since 1989," Tabar said from his Mesa apartment that he and his roommate are struggling to keep as they try to pay other bills without his salary. "I feel this is violating my constitutional rights."

Jim Pavletich, spokesman for the Phoenix office of the Social Security Administration, is among a growing group trying to help expedite the process alongside the office of Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz. But Pavletich, who was given permission by Tabar to speak to his case, said their hands could be tied given the unusual nature of Tabar's situation - of having lost both documents.

"There have been very few cases where we've had a situation as difficult as this," he said.

Still, the issue of naturalized citizens not updating their status and getting new Social Security cards has been a problem that immigration officials are trying to address.

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service in May began attending naturalization cere-monies, and about two months ago began taking Social Security administrative officers along, to help new citizens file the proper paperwork to prevent problems later in life, like when they need a new card or benefits.

The U.S. office realized the help was needed after seeing that in a electronic verification system employers use when hiring new staff about 20 percent of employees were flagged as having an issue or discrepancy with their status in this country. It was determined that many of those flagged were actually naturalized citizens who just never filed their naturalization papers to get their official Social Security card.

For most of those cases, according to U.S. immigration officials, the problem is easily fixed, as long as the citizens have enough documentation to fill out basic forms allowing them to get a job while they wait for their Social Security card to be updated. Some are automatically fixed by the system, without the worker ever knowing of the problem, officials said.

Staff from the office of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said they've dealt with this problem before, and with the right evidence of hardship, have successfully helped to expedite the process and get people to work.

The agencies the Tribune spoke to strongly advised naturalized citizens investigate whether their status needs to be updated, and if so, file the proper paperwork immediately - and keep documents in a safe place.

"Let's do this now before it presents itself as an issue," Pavletich said.

Tabar said he's taken out loans to get by that could take him a year to pay off. In the meantime, he's been donating blood plasma and doing odd jobs to try and help his roommate pay rent. He said he's also receiving food stamps until he can buy his own food."This is getting expensive," Tabar said, adding, "I am this close to being homeless."