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INS Struggles With Waivers for Disability

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About one of every 10 citizenship applicants in Southern California is claiming physical or mental disabilities in hopes of receiving an exemption from English language and civics testing, federal officials said Thursday.

The resulting need to closely examine as many as 50,000 exemption applicants is further straining a citizenship review system in Southern California that immigrant advocates fear is already near a breakdown. The Immigration and Naturalization Service suspects that many claims for testing waivers may be fraudulent.

In 1994, Congress directed the INS to allow testing exemptions for citizenship applicants with disabilities. But the INS did not put guidelines allowing such waivers in place until March 1997. Since then, the large number of waiver applicants nationwide has surprised some INS officials.

Registered nurses from the U.S. Public Health Service will begin assisting INS examiners in Los Angeles, Miami and New York next week in an effort to provide “more timely and consistent” decisions for the applicants who are seeking the disability exemptions, the INS announced Thursday.

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Officials said they hope the nurses’ expertise--to be used during a 90-day pilot program--will aid in advancing legitimate cases and ferreting out applicants attempting to fool the system. The INS could provide no estimates on how many waiver requests are probably fraudulent.

“This is a positive step forward for us as we continue to find new ways to address some of the more complex citizenship issues,” INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said in a statement. She added that the Public Health Service should “improve our ability to provide fair, compassionate and consistent review of the cases filed by those with disabilities.”

Most citizenship applicants must demonstrate some command of English and basic knowledge of U.S. government and history, usually during an interview with an INS examiner. Applicants are asked boilerplate questions such as the number of states in the union and the name of the president.

But Congress, in authorizing the exemptions, recognized that even answering such simple questions--or attaining a basic level of English proficiency--may pose an insurmountable bar for applicants suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other mental impairments. Likewise, people with physical limitations such as hearing and speech disorders may also be unable to qualify for citizenship without a waiver.

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Although precise figures were not available, reports from INS offices indicate that the numbers of people seeking disability waivers vary widely, from 10% of citizenship applicants in the Los Angeles region to 20% in San Francisco to 30% in Miami. Areas with large numbers of elderly applicants probably include a greater proportion of applicants with Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments that tend to afflict the aged.

Advocates for the disabled fought hard for the testing exemptions but say that the INS has been too stingy in granting waivers. Activists for the disabled voiced optimism that the Public Health Service presence would help overcome what they called a disturbing INS tendency to reject many waiver requests despite the opinions of doctors and mental health professionals that exemptions were merited.

“We hope this frees up the logjam and speeds up the process of adjudicating what we believe to be bona fide applicants,” said Charles Wheeler, senior attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

The numbers of prospective citizens seeking exemptions from testing is one more factor contributing to a backlog of about 500,000 applications in the seven-county Los Angeles INS district, which leads the nation in citizenship applications. The district includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

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Many naturalization applicants have been waiting for three years or more; the INS says citizenship requests should only take six months.

Behind the delay are several factors, including an unprecedented wave of applicants, an outdated INS computer system, bureaucratic inefficiency and tightened procedures for criminal background checks. About 200,000 longtime applicants in Southern California must have their fingerprints taken anew because their security checks have expired and the FBI discarded the prints that they had originally submitted.

Those seeking exemptions from English language and civics exams must include a form signed by a doctor or licensed clinical psychologist attesting to the applicants’ inability to take the tests.

Although excused from English and civics testing, successful waiver applicants must still undergo an INS interview, albeit in their native language and, if needed, with a caretaker present. And all prospective citizens must demonstrate their ability to take a “meaningful oath” of allegiance to the United States, even if they can only nod their head, blink their eyes or give some other signal. Final approval of each case remains with the INS.

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“In the beginning, there was a lot of suspicion” on the part of the INS toward the applicants, said Geneva Ruiz-Hyatt of the East Valley Multi-Purpose, a North Hollywood-based group that has helped more than 5,000 noncitizens apply for testing waivers.

Many are fearful of losing federal disability and other benefits that Congress has increasingly reserved for citizens. At least 20 of Ruiz-Hyatt’s clients have died while waiting for responses on their citizenship testing waivers, she said.


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