February 17, 1997 in Nation/World

Ins Prepares To Let Disabled Applicants Skip Citizenship Test Handicapped Legal Immigrants Face Cutoff Of Welfare Benefits

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 August cutoff mandated by the sweeping 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.

However, advocates of reduced immigration levels regard any easing of citizenship requirements warily at a time when record numbers of people 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.

Congress mandated the Immigration and Naturalization Service implement the waivers in a 1994 technical amendment, well before citizenship requirements emerged as a hot-button issue in Washington.

Last year’s welfare restructuring, with its virtual mandate that immigrants become citizens to retain many federal welfare benefits, added new urgency for the disabled.

The extreme sensitivity of the issue has prompted yet another round of reviews of the long-stalled proposals at an edgy INS.

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.

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, 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.

xxxx GETTING IN In general, would-be citizens must have been legal residents of the United States for at least five years, demonstrate an understanding of English and show a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government. Applicants also must have “good moral character,” meaning they are not alcoholics or drug abusers, did not lie to obtain legal residence and have not been convicted of any of a broad range of crimes, from theft to murder.

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