The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) simplified and shortened its disability waiver on Oct. 19 to improve the accessibility of the naturalization process, effectively reversing barriers for disabled immigrants put in place by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
The disability waiver provides an exception to the English and civics requirements for naturalization applicants who cannot meet the requirements because of a physical, developmental or mental disability.
“The policy change is going to have the positive impact of making it easier for disabled immigrants who have resided and contributed to their communities for years and years, and getting the status that recognizes them as having done so as citizens,” Trinh Q. Truong, research assistant on the immigration team at the Center for American Progress, told HuffPost.
In 2020, the Trump administration doubled the length of the waiver to include excessive questions regarding the applicant’s ability to function in daily life, descriptions of their disability, dates of their diagnosis and confirmation of a previous relationship with a medical professional.
Based on public comment, the revised version eliminated these parts of the form, which the USCIS described as “redundant,” and no longer of “practical utility.” The revised form also allows physicians to say if the applicant needs an oath waiver — which indicates that the disabled applicant is unable to understand or communicate the meaning of the oath of allegiance to the United States — and therefore requires no additional or separate medical documentation.
Michelle Garcia, manager of community organizing at disability rights organization Access Living, said legal documents are often written in a way that’s difficult for both disabled and nondisabled individuals to understand.
“Applying for citizenship [is] a lengthy process in itself, but having this piece be not so lengthy, [and] … somewhat easier, gives somebody more serenity throughout,” Garcia told HuffPost.
Trump’s ‘War On Immigration’
The Trump administration’s decision to create additional administrative hurdles for disabled immigrants was a part of a widespread effort to reduce immigration through racist and xenophobic policies.
“[Doubling the form length] is an easy way to help reduce the amount of people who can immigrate to the country, and ensures that ‘undesirables’ aren’t able to become citizens,” Mia Ives-Rublee, director for the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, said.
She pointed out that the questions in the waiver required significant expertise and knowledge of a medical condition that is not accessible to all immigrants.
“I think it then [puts] preference [on] countries that have good infrastructure, countries that keep good medical records. Some people may be living in places that have no medical records at all. So what are they supposed to do in order to be able to document their disability?” Ives-Rublee said.
Under the new regulations, applicants who don’t properly complete their waiver can resubmit their form with updated information without having to fill out an entirely new one. Prior to this policy change, if there was an error in the form, it would be considered illegible, and applicants would have to reapply, Ives-Rublee said.
Barriers To Health Care
According to the Kaiser Foundation, noncitizens are much more likely to be uninsured than citizens. This can pose difficulties for the tens of thousands of disabled immigrants applying for a disability waiver because of the required medical verification.
Legal permanent residents — aside from pregnant women and children — are generally unable to receive full Medicaid benefits for their first five years in the U.S. After five years, it’s up to individual states to decide whether to offer coverage.
But Garcia said that many immigrants still fear applying for Medicaid through the state level, as well as other services such as food stamps, because of Trump-era policies denying permanent residency to immigrants deemed likely to use public benefits, even though that policy was dismantled by the Biden administration in September 2022.
Improving Access To The Immigration System
The changes to the form are a necessary reversal of the Trump administration’s harmful immigration policies that targeted disabled immigrants and asylum-seekers, said Truong.
“The [Biden] administration had a huge job to take on when they came into office, and it was rebuilding an entire immigration system that was dismantled systematically in every way. You think of every wrench that could have been thrown in the system, and that’s effectively what happened during the Trump administration by design,” she said.
Still, barriers remain within the naturalization process and immigration system.
According to the USCIS, the disability waiver must be completed and signed by a licensed medical professional, which is limited to medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy or clinical psychologists. But experts say some disabled low-income immigrants may receive their primary health care from nurse practitioners or other medical professionals who don’t have the authority to certify the waivers.
Disabled people who can take the citizenship test are allowed to request accommodations. Some immigrants may not know their rights when it comes to requesting these accommodations. Garcia noted that in some instances, accommodations have not been provided, which is an area that she hopes to see improved upon in the future.
“The United States simply just would not be what it is without the contribution of all immigrants, and immigrants with disabilities are part of that. All immigrants, including disabled immigrants, deserve a fair, humane, workable and accessible immigration system,” Truong said. “This form is a really great first step in thinking about how we can make changes throughout the system that have rippling effects to give people more access, but it can’t end here.”