As Ms. Kidny Nicolas strutted across the courtroom to receive her certificate of United States citizenship, I could feel the intense joy radiating from her smile and mahogany skin. Diagnosed in 1999 with a medical condition that caused partial blindness in both eyes, Kidny had required accommodations in every step of her citizenship application process. When she stopped to pose, with hand on her hip, so that I could snap a photo, she told me that walk was “one of the greatest moments of my life.” For the past several months, I had been her citizenship advocate at CASA – a non-profit immigrant advocacy and services organization. On the drive back home, we blasted Tasha Cobbs’ “Break Every Chain” and stopped for chocolate caramel ice cream.
The next generation of immigrants with disabilities may not reach Kidny’s “greatest moment.” A few months ago, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented changes that will create massive barriers to disabled immigrants in pursuit of United States citizenship.
Currently, the citizenship application form allows an applicant to select if they are hard of hearing, vision impaired, or have any other type of disability and request reasonable accommodations. My friend, Kidny, was able to use this section to request larger and bolder print due to her partial blindness. Under a new proposal, the accommodation section will be removed entirely.
To obtain accommodations, all disabled applicants will now have to get a medical waiver with special caveats. The new policy discriminates against disabled immigrants by requiring that 1) medical waivers be submitted simultaneously with citizenship applications, 2) that blind applicants must obtain a medical waiver to request an oral test and 3) that applicants may not use the same interpreter for their interview and medical examination.
Requiring that the medical waiver form be submitted concurrently with the application for naturalization will make application for citizenship significantly harder for immigrants with disabilities. Many immigrants find it near impossible to access healthcare before obtaining citizenship, but with the new requirement they will have to find a doctor before they can obtain accommodations.
And, if you accidentally submit your application before your medical waiver, before you are able to see a doctor, tread very carefully. The new policy also states that any Form N-648 submitted after the initial filing for citizenship “can raise credible doubts about the validity of the medical certification.”
With the new requirements, blind applicants must obtain the medical waiver form in order to request an oral exam. If Kidny were to apply under these new policy changes, she would have needed to find a doctor to complete a medical waiver for her, which would have been nearly impossible, as she did not have transportation and was unemployed at the time due to her disability. And even if she did, she may not have been able to convince a doctor to agree to completing the form (many medical professionals are hesitant to sign immigration documents that they are not familiar with).
USCIS has been accommodating to blind applicants for many years. Why the administration has gone after blind applicants now is unclear.
Under the new changes, people applying for citizenship cannot use the same interpreter for their medical examination and interview. Consider that you are severely intellectually disabled and need an interpreter. You have your adult daughter translate for you in your medical examination. She is the only one you trust and who understands your disability inside and out. And now, after more than a year of the application process, at your finally reached citizenship interview, and your daughter, is not even allowed in the room.
Many people rely on a trusted family member or close friend to translate for them and the disabled even more so. Requiring them to find or pay for a new interpreter adds another unfair burden. Although USCIS provides translators, oftentimes, they are only available via phone, which can be difficult to hear and not always provided in the same dialect as the applicant.
USCIS is contradicting their commitment to “make every effort to provide accommodations to customers with disabilities.” These changes will 1) prolong the already extraordinarily long process of applying for US citizenship, 2) unrightfully suggest fraud, and 3) lower the number of low-income disabled legal permanent residents that will apply for naturalization (due to lack of healthcare and legal representation). There are several other nuanced changes that I encourage to be explored in CLINIC’s response during the open comment period.
As my mind flashes back to the President mocking a disabled reporter, it is impossible not to see these impending changes as a part of a persistent hierarchy of whose lives are worthy of citizenship in the United States. Blatant discrimination against the disabled goes against our nations core values. To my fellow immigration professionals, attorneys, volunteers, and citizens – the time is now to stand up for disabled immigrants who are being blocked and discouraged from gaining their rightful and well-earned citizenship. As we continue to work on behalf of all immigrants together, spread the word and make it clear to our newly elected Congress that the discrimination of our brothers and sisters with disabilities will not be tolerated.
by Cathryn A. Paul
Cathryn A. Paul is the Maryland Citizenship Program Coordinator at CASA @cathrynannpaul