National Council on Disability Document Archive

NCD doc on immigrants with disabilities

Posted by: Jamal Mazrui
Date Mailed: Tuesday, July 22nd 1997 11:12 AM

In an effort to correct problems for legal immigrants with
disabilities resulting from the 1996 welfare reform law, the
National Council on Disability communicated the following
position paper last month to key leaders in Congress and the


Impact of the Welfare Reform Legislation
 on Legal Immigrants with Disabilities
 June 23, 1997

     It is the statutory mandate of the National Council on 
Disability to advise the Congress and the President when the laws 
and policies of the United States adversely affect the well-being 
and progress of individuals with disabilities.  The National 
Council on Disability therefore must convey its serious concern, 
and that of the members of this community, at the economic, 
physical and emotional injury that the 1996 welfare reform 
legislation will inflict, in fact has already inflicted, on 
certain members of the community, legal immigrants with 

     The welfare law's toll on the community of persons with 
disabilities has already been enormous.  Letters mailed earlier 
this year by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"),[1] 
warning legal immigrants of the U.S. Government's plans to 
terminate their benefits this summer, created such dismay and 
panic in the community that disability advocates fear a rash of 
suicides as the deadline for termination of benefits approaches.  
The bipartisan budget accord reached last May purported to 
restore certain benefits to legal immigrants who arrived in the 
country before August 23, 1996.  However, the budget accord did 
not go far enough in restoring benefits desperately needed by 
individuals with disabilities.  Moreover, recent Congressional 
proposals to implement the budget accord have stripped certain of 
the benefits that were restored to individuals with disabilities 
by the budget accord, despite new official estimates that 
sufficient funding could be made available within the budgetary 
limits established by the accord to restore all such benefits to 
persons with disabilities and to restore benefits to aging legal 
immigrants as well.[2]

     While any effort to restore benefits deserves support, none 
of the proposals currently working through the system goes far 
enough to prevent numerous vulnerable human beings from losing 
their only means of support and medical care.   The loss of 
government aid will not move these individuals from welfare to 
work, the stated goal of welfare reform. It is not the existence 
of federal benefits, but barriers of discrimination, 
transportation and others, that prevent them from working to 
support themselves.  The United States must be able to balance 
its budget in a manner that is less destructive to human lives.  
It is imperative that action be taken to restore eligibility of 
legal immigrants who have, or who in the future may experience,  
disabilities for all federal benefits for which they were 
eligible prior to the
enactment of the 1996 welfare reform law.

What Benefits Will Be Denied?

     Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity 
Reconciliation Act of 1996 ("PRWOR"),[3] current and future legal 
immigrants will be barred from receiving Supplemental Security 
Income ("SSI") benefits under a program managed by the SSA and 
food stamps under a program financed through the U.S. Department 
of Agriculture and administered by the States.[4]    Legal 
immigrants who do not requalify for benefits under the PRWOR's 
new criteria will have their benefits cut-off  in August of this 
year.[5]  In addition, with limited exceptions, the PRWOR gives 
the States the discretion to determine whether or not legal 
immigrants will continue to be eligible for Federal cash 
assistance under three Federal programs:  (I) temporary 
assistance for needy families; (ii) services under the Social 
Services Block Grant; and (iii) Medicaid.[6]  In a number of 
States, where eligibility to receive Medicaid depends upon 
eligibility to receive federal SSI benefits, Medicaid will be 
discontinued to existing recipients when SSI benefits are cut 
off, unless the State laws are changed.[7]   

     In addition to the benefits withheld above, with limited 
exceptions for federal programs such as limited emergency medical 
assistance and pubic health assistance for immunizations, 
immigrants who arrive legally in the United States after the 
enactment of PRWOR are not eligible for Federal means-tested 
public benefits for five years after their date of entry.[8]  
While the PRWOR exempts certain legal immigrants from its 
an incapacitating disability does not prevent a legal immigrant 
from having his or her means of support terminated under the 

     SSA anticipates that less than half of the legal immigrants 
receiving notification letters from SSA will qualify for an 
exemption from losing their SSI benefits under the PRWOR as 
currently in effect. [10]  The Congressional Budget Office 
estimated that the PRWOR, as currently in effect, will result in 
denial of SSI benefits to approximately 500,000 legal immigrants, 
and of food stamps to approximately 1 million of the roughly 1.5 
million legal immigrants currently receiving federal assistance.  

     The PRWOR will hit hardest the permanently disabled who are 
dependent on SSI, food stamps and Medicaid for their support and 
medical care.  The denial of benefits will require disabled 
immigrants to rely even more heavily on others, stretching the 
resources of their families and sponsors (if they have family and 
sponsors) who, though gainfully employed, in many cases do not 
have sufficient resources to support them.  Without SSI payments, 
food stamps and Medicaid, state and local governments and private 
charities will become the prime source of assistance to legal 
immigrants with severe disabilities, and there is reason to fear 
that competing interests and agendas and thinning budgets will 
prevent these groups from adequately filling the gap.


      In an effort to stave off the impending loss of their sole 
means of support, many legal immigrants with disabilities who 
have held their green cards long enough to be eligible to file 
for citizenship have commenced the process of becoming 
naturalized U.S. citizens.[12]  While some will be successful at 
becoming U.S. citizens prior to the cessation of their benefits, 
many legal immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship will 
still be waiting in line to complete the naturalization process 
when their benefits are cut off.  There is now a backlog
of applicants and the applications will take months to 

     The PRWOR has served to highlight a fundamental problem with 
the immigration laws of this country - the inability of 
individuals with severe disabilities to become U.S. citizens.  
Until very recently, the U.S. naturalization requirements made 
citizenship nearly impossible to obtain for severely disabled 
legal immigrants.  On October 25, 1994, Congress enacted the 
Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 1994 
which exempts immigrants with "physical and developmental 
disabilities" or "mental impairments" seeking citizenship from 
requirements that they prove their English proficiency and 
knowledge of U.S. civics (such as the number of states, the name 
of the president and the colors of the flag).[14]  However, the 
United States Immigration and Naturalization Service's (INS) 
regulations implementing the legislation did not go into effect 
until March of this year, over two years after Congress passed 
the law.  The INS has estimated that 300,000 disabled legal 
immigrants may now apply for the exemption from the English and 
civics tests.[15]  However, given the backlog of citizenship 
applicants, there are no assurances that newly exempted 
immigrants will be able to take advantage of the new rules in 
time to prevent their benefits from being cut off. 

     Moreover, the adopting release to the new INS regulations 
makes clear that immigrants with disabilities are not exempt from 
the requirement that an applicant for U.S. citizenship take the 
citizenship oath and renounce his or her former citizenship.  
Thus, the most severely mentally disabled, such as people with 
Alzheimer's, victims of stroke, and persons with severe 
retardation, will not be able to become citizens.  The INS 
responded to this criticism, pointing out that the legislation 
passed in October 1994 does not give the agency the discretion to 
eliminate the citizenship oath requirement for such persons.  INS 
policy requires naturalization examiners to be flexible about the 
manner in which disabled immigrants can demonstrate their 
comprehension that they are giving up their former citizenship in 
favor of U.S. citizenship.[16]  However, naturalization examiners 
are not trained to evaluate a disabled applicant's ability to 
comprehend what is taking place.

     In response to the outcry of disability advocacy groups and 
the public legislative measures have been introduced that attempt 
to ameliorate the situation by giving the naturalization process 
the flexibility to accommodate the needs of individuals with
disabilities.  One such measure would amend the Immigration and 
Nationality Act to permit the Attorney General to waive the oath 
requirement for naturalization where the applicant is unable to 
understand its meaning because of a disability or mental 
impairment.[17] The National Council on Disability applauds the 
effort to facilitate the naturalization of immigrants with the 
severest disabilities and makes the following recommendations 
with respect to the naturalization process:
     a)   Naturalization must be afforded to all qualifying 
          individuals with disabilities, regardless of the 
          severity of the disability.

     b)   The naturalization process must be sensitive to the 
          unique needs of individuals with disabilities and the 
          naturalization examiners must receive adequate training 
          to evaluate when the English and civic tests and oath 
          requirements should be waived.

     c)   The naturalization process should be in accord with the 
          requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Amendments to PRWOR.  

     Recognizing that legal immigrants with disabilities may be 
unable to become citizens under present law, Representative 
Ros-Lehtinen and Representative Diaz-Balart introduced amendments 
to the PRWOR that would assure eligibility for SSI and food 
stamps for legal immigrants who are not able to naturalize in 
that they cannot take the required oath due to a disability that 
arose after their admission to the United States.[18]  This bill 
would also ensure continuation of benefits to qualified legal 
immigrants who have filed applications for naturalization which 
have not been processed by the INS.[19]   While the National 
Council on Disability supports the effort to shield individuals 
with the severest mental impairments from the effects of the 
PRWOR, and to protect those immigrants waiting in line to attain 
citizenship, the better approach is not to deprive any legal 
immigrant with a disability from Federal benefits, regardless of 
whether the individual chooses to seek U.S. citizenship.

     This approach was taken in the bipartisan budget accord 
reached in May, which purported to restore certain benefits to 
legal immigrants with disabilities.  The accord did not restore 
food stamp eligibility to legal immigrants with disabilities but 
did restore SSI and Medicaid for all
disabled legal immigrants who are or who become disabled and who 
entered the United States prior to August 23, 1996.  Nonetheless 
federal officials estimated that nearly 1 million legal 
immigrants would still lose benefits under the accord.[1]  

     While the budget accord represented some improvement for 
individuals with disabilities, to date Congress' attempts to 
implement the bipartisan budget accord have failed to live up to 
this limited relief.  In its proposed implementation of the 
budget accord, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human 
Resources proposed to restore SSI only to legal immigrants who 
were already on the SSI rolls prior to August 23, 1996, thus 
maintaining elderly immigrants on the SSI rolls (who were not 
covered under the budget accord), but cutting off any legal 
immigrant who, through accident or illness, acquires a disability 
only after August 22, 1996.[2]  On June 21, House Budget 
Committee Chairman John R. Kasich stated that the House 
Republicans would support the restoration of eligibility for SSI 
of this latter group when the bill goes to conference.[3]  The 
House bill also does not guarantee Medicaid benefits for legal 
immigrants eligible to receive SSI, although the bipartisan 
budget accord did so.[4]  Press reports state that the Senate 
Finance Committee proposed to restore SSI benefits to disabled 
legal immigrants who were in the country when welfare reform 
became law last August 22, to give all legal immigrants until 
September 30 to apply for disability assistance under SSI, and to 
provide Medicaid benefits for children of legal immigrants.[5]  
While the Committee's proposal represents an improvement over the 
House version, the proposal still restores fewer benefits than 
the bipartisan budget accord,[6] an accord that was already 
deficient in many respects. 
     The National Council on Disability strongly recommends that 
the PRWOR be amended
to exempt all legal immigrants with disabilities from its 
provisions whether their disabilities were incurred before, on or 
after August 23, 1996.  SSI, Medicaid and food stamps should be 
continued for all qualified persons with disabilities legally 
residing in the United States.   

     The primary goal of welfare reform is to move people from 
welfare to work by removing a perceived disincentive to doing so.  
Cutting off benefits to persons who are disabled, and  who face 
many barriers in their attempts to return to work, in no way 
serves that goal.  Moreover, denying basic subsistence benefits 
to disabled legal immigrants, many of whom have worked and paid 
taxes, and have become disabled only after entering the United 
States, is unjust and violates common principles of fairness and 
compassion.  Shifting the burden to the States and private 
charities is not sufficient to avoid driving persons with 
disabilities into severe hardship. 

     NCD has consistently supported the restoration of persons 
with disabilities to the work force.  Many barriers to employment 
for persons with disabilities, other than existence of a 
disability, need to be addressed to maximize their employment 

     In the meantime, we must be assured that under the law of 
this land no person with a disability legally in this country, 
whether an immigrant or American born, will ever again be faced 
with the threat of losing his or her only means of financial 
support or medical services.  This community will not tolerate 
these threats to the welfare of individual lives.  The budget 
must find its balance elsewhere.
                 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

1. The SSA has been sending notices to nearly 900,000 
non-citizens nationwide informing them of the possibility that 
SSI benefits may be discontinued.   Statement by John J. 
Callahan, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Welfare Reform:  
A Need for Change (March, 21, 1997).

2. Judith Havemann and Eric Pianin, House Panel Votes to Maintain 
Limits on Disability Payments to Noncitizens, The Washington Post 
(June 11, 1997).

3. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation 
Act of 1996 (PRWOR), Public Law 104-193 (August 22, 1997).

4. PRWOR, Section 402(a)(1).  SSI provides cash assistance 
averaging $425 per month to persons with disabilities and the 
elderly poor. Statement by John J. Callahan, supra, Note 1.

5. Stephen Green, Panel Eases Welfare Ban For Immigrants, Senate 
Plan Would Grant Medicaid Benefits to Children, The San Diego 
Union-Tribune (June 20, 1997).

6. PRWOR, Section 402(b)(I).

7. Celia W. Dagger, U.S. Says Mental Impairment Might Be a Bar to 
Citizenship, The New York Times (March 19, 1997).

8. PRWOR,  Section 403(a).

9. The PRWOR exempts certain immigrant groups from the exclusion 
from benefits: (I) refugees and asylees during their first five 
years in the United States; (ii) lawful permanent residents who 
have worked in the United States for approximately 10 years (40 
qualifying quarters as defined in the Social Security Act), 
provided they have not received any Federal means-tested public 
benefit with respect to any
qualifying quarter after December 31, 1996; and (iii) veterans 
and persons on active duty in the armed services and their 
spouses and dependents. PRWOR, Section 402(a)(2); 402(b)(2); 

10.  Statement by John J. Callahan, supra, Note 1.

11. Molly Peterson, ISSUE FOCUS:  GOP Mulls Aid to Legal 
Immigrants As Welfare Deadlines Near,  Copyright _ 1997 
Legi-Slate, Inc. (April 14, 1997).

12. New INS Rules Could Waive Civics Tests for Thousands - 
300,000 Facing Aid Cutoff May Be Helped, The Washington Post 
(March 19, 1997).

13. Dagger, supra., Note 7. 

14. Immigration and Nationality Technical Corrections Act of 
1994, Section 312.

15. Id.  

16. U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization 
Service Fact Sheet, Exceptions from English and Civics Testing 
Requirements For Naturalization Applicants With Disabilities 
(March 19, 1997).  

17. H.R. 1239, 105th Cong., 1st Sess. (April 8, 1997);  H.R. 
1133, 105th Cong, 1st Session, 1-2 (1997).

18. H.R. 660, 105th Cong., 1st Session,  1 (1997);  H.R. 1360, 
105th Cong., 1st Session,  1 (1997).

19. H.R. 660, 105th Cong., 1st Session,  1 (1997).

1. Lawrence M. O'Rourke, Deal on Balanced Budget; 5-Year Plan 
Hailed by Both Clinton, GOP as a Victory, Sacramento Bee, May 3, 
1997 at A1.

2. Approximately 75,000 fewer immigrants would receive benefits 
by 2002 under the Committee's plan than under the bipartisan 
budget accord.  Letter dated June 5, 1997 from Franklin D. 
Raines, Director, Office of Management and Budget, to 
Representative E. Clay Shaw, Jr., Chairman, Subcommittee on Human 
Resources, Committee on Ways and Means.  The Committee's bill was 
opposed by advocacy groups for seniors as well as disability 
advocates.  Statement of Congressman Sander Levin on Restoring 
Benefits to Legal Immigrants, June 16, 1997; Letter of James 
Firman, Chair of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations 
dated June 6, 1997; Restoring SSI Eligibility to All Legal 
Immigrants, Statement of the American Association of Homes and 
Services for the Aging. (June 16, 1997).

3. House GOP Retreats on Medicare, Welfare in Budget Legislation, 
Associated Press, Saturday, June 21, 1997.

4. Letter from Franklin D. Raines, supra., Note 21.

5. Green, supra., Note 5.

6. House GOP Retreats on Medicare, supra., Note 22.

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