INS Implements New Guidance to Improve the Review of Naturalization Cases of Applicants with Disabilities*
WASHINGTON -- In an effort to promote fairness and consistency in the adjudication of naturalization cases of applicants with disabilities, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) last week provided its field offices with comprehensive policy guidance for the review of Forms N-648, Medical Certification for Disability Exceptions. INS worked closely with community-based organizations that have experience with disability waiver issues to develop this guidance. The guidance will enhance the ability of INS adjudicators to properly examine medical waiver forms by clarifying issues that may have been confusing and complex.
"This is a step forward for INS as we continue to find new ways to address some of the more complex citizenship cases in a more timely and customer-oriented manner," said INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. "The new policy guidance will improve our ability to make fair, compassionate and consistent decisions on the citizenship applications of persons with disabilities."
On March 19, 1997, INS published a final rule in the Federal Register that exempts persons with disabilities from the English and civics requirements for naturalization, if they have a "medically determinable" physical or developmental disability and/or mental impairment that prevents them from meeting these requirements. The new guidance highlights and clarifies the following issues:
- Medical Certification. Medical doctors (including general practitioners or family doctors), clinical psychologists, and, as of March 22, 1999, doctors of osteopathy are authorized to complete the medical waiver form (N-648). The guidance reiterates that doctors who complete the Form N-648 must establish that the applicant has a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment that has impaired an individual's functioning so severely that the individual is unable to learn or demonstrate knowledge of English and/or U.S. history and government (civics). The doctor must clearly address the connection between the applicant's diagnosed condition and how it affects the applicant's ability to learn or demonstrate the required knowledge. The new guidance for the first time provides several examples of insufficient and sufficient responses to question 3 (findings and medical opinion) on the Form N-648.
- INS Review of Medical Certification. The guidance clarifies and stresses that INS adjudicators should not question the doctor's diagnosis, nor should they require doctors to provide an explanation of how they reached their diagnosis. Adjudicators must determine if the Form N-648 contains sufficient information and the doctor has clearly established the connection between the medical condition and the applicant's ability to learn or demonstrate knowledge of English and civics.
- Timeliness of the Form N-648. The guidance reiterates that if the Form N-648 is submitted to the INS (i.e. with the naturalization application Form N-400 or presented at the interview) within six months of when it was completed by the doctor, the form is valid and never expires. If the first Form N-648 is not accepted, INS requests a second or amended Form N-648 by a certain date. The new guidance establishes for the first time that if the applicant submits the second or amended Form N-648 to INS by the required date, that form is valid for an indefinite period of time.
- Interview Process. The guidance clarifies the interview process for applicants who submit a Form N-648, and specifies when they should be tested on English and civics if the Form N-648 is not acceptable. To promote consistency and help reduce the number of applicant visits to INS, the new guidance now specifies that applicants who appear for an initial interview and whose medical waivers are not accepted will be tested for English and civics. Those applicants who are unable to understand English and/or who do not pass the tests will be given one more opportunity to present an acceptable Form N-648 and to meet the English and civics requirements.
- Accommodations for the Oath of Allegiance. Applicants with disabilities who are granted medical waivers are still required to meet all other requirements for naturalization including taking the Oath of Allegiance. The new guidance reiterates previous direction that adjudicators must make reasonable accommodations to allow applicants with disabilities to demonstrate that they understand the nature of the oath and agree to it. Such accommodations can include simplifying questions or allowing the applicant to use predetermined physical motions or signals (such as blinks.)
- Other Reasonable Accommodations and Modifications. The new guidance details other reasonable accommodations that should be made for persons with disabilities. These include accommodations for signatures on naturalization forms as well as modifications to test administration for English and civics and the actual interview process (i.e. providing a sign language interpreter upon request).
- Denials of Disability Cases. The new guidance provides sample language to help adjudicators properly advise applicants of the reasons for the denial of naturalization applications, including the reasons why the Form N-648 was not accepted.
*This piece is written by AILA and fully supported by the Law Offices of Tasoff & Tasoff, which have been active members of the Association since 1954.