Elderly, disabled may have trouble getting US citizenship

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Elderly and disabled immigrants are suffering hardships because of restrictions on citizenship applications by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to some US agencies that aid immigrants.

The advocates say applications for citizenship are being delayed by procedural changes that include the ending of an outreach program, more background checks, and increased rejection of medical certificates that allow some applicants to avoid interviews in English and the citizenship exam.

The delays, they say, have put disabled and elderly refugee applicants at risk of losing some government benefits, because to be eligible, they must meet a deadline to become citizens.

''All this is causing great hardship for our clients," said Ashraf Habibi, director of Orange County Social and Immigration Services, an agency based in Irvine, Calif., that assists elderly and disabled immigrants -- many of them refugees -- with citizenship applications.

Officials at US Citizenship and Immigration Services acknowledge giving greater scrutiny to applications, including requests for exemptions from having interviews in English and from taking the required civics test.

''We started to see more and more requests for disability waivers," said Marie Therese Sebrechts, an agency spokeswoman. ''It was noticeable enough that our adjudicators decided it was necessary to take a closer look, to take more time to look at the evidence given to them before making a decision."

Sebrechts said successful applicants for exemptions must be more than simply elderly and disabled. There has to be a proven connection between an applicant's physical or mental health and that individual's inability to learn English or take the test, she said.

Government regulations require that applicants have a command of written and spoken English and know aspects of US history and government, unless they are able to prove a physical, developmental, or mental disability. A licensed medical doctor must certify the immigrant's health.

Refugees are eligible to apply for citizenship after five years' residence in the United States. They have up to seven years to secure US citizenship or risk losing Supplementary Security Income, federal funds designed to help elderly, blind, and low-income disabled people meet basic needs that include food, clothing, and shelter.