U.S. may cut red tape for disabled immigrants Long-delayed revisions may allow many to forgo the citizenship exams

February 17, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

After years of delay, federal authorities are putting the final touches on new guidelines that could allow thousands of physically and mentally disabled immigrants to become citizens without passing now-mandatory examinations in English and U.S. civics.

Disabled rights groups and immigrant advocates have been pressing the Clinton administration to issue the new regulations in time for many to become citizens -- and thus retain public benefits -- before an impending cutoff in August set by the welfare overhaul passed by Congress last year.

"This could truly be a gift of hope for all disabled legal immigrants who have been living in fear about losing the only support they have," said Gladys Lee, director of the Asian Pacific Family Center in Rosemead, Calif.

But advocates of reduced immigration levels regard any easing of citizenship requirements warily at a time when record numbers are applying, and many Republican critics openly view the entire process as politically tainted.

"Are we talking about destroying the whole principle of citizenship because a few people on welfare want to become citizens?" asked Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that favors reduced immigration.

Congress mandated that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) implement the waivers in a little-noticed technical amendment passed in 1994, well before citizenship requirements emerged as a hot-button issue.

The sensitivity of the issue has prompted yet another round of reviews of the long-stalled proposals at the INS, which had been scheduled to release the new rules earlier this month before pulling them at the 11th hour for legal fine-tuning.

The agency has estimated that some 300,000 disabled immigrants nationwide could apply for exemptions from current requirements that virtually all applicants demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics.

Under the plan, disabled applicants would not have to demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics, including answering such questions as, "Who was George Washington?" and "How many states compose the nation?"

Activists also have been pressing the INS to expand proposed definitions of who qualifies as disabled, and broaden the pool of physicians who can certify applicants as physically, developmentally or mentally incapacitated.

The INS, analysts say, is unlikely to modify the requirement that applicants demonstrate the ability to take a "meaningful oath," the clinching act of citizenship. During the oath ceremony, typically overseen by federal judges, new citizens renounce allegiance to "any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty," and pledge loyalty to the United States.

The oath mandate is a major sticking point in a pending federal lawsuit against the INS by groups based in California representing Alzheimer's patients and others who are mentally incapacitated. Disability rights advocates want to modify the oath requirement for those incapable of demonstrating comprehension, perhaps allowing guardians or caretakers to attest on behalf of applicants.

Not modifying the oath requirement, disabled activists argue, effectively bars citizenship for an extremely vulnerable group that Congress explicitly sought to include in the process.

"Congress is saying, 'You can skip the final exam,' but the INS is saying, 'We're not going to give you the diploma,' " said Stephen A. Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, one of the groups suing the INS.

But authorities have maintained that the oath mandate cannot be modified without a specific change in federal law.

Lacking formal regulations, INS officials nationwide have been granting exemptions for the disabled on a case-by-case basis since 1995 under a sketchy agency directive urging "compassion and discretion."

But advocates for immigrants and the disabled argue that the agency has been inconsistent, dragged its feet and bottled up thousands of applications nationwide in the absence of formal instructions.

A record 1.1 million new citizens took the oath last year, many prompted by fears of aid cutbacks and other legislative proposals targeting noncitizens.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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