Current USCIS Guidance on Adjudicating Disability Waivers
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, has recently modified its Policy Manual regarding adjudication of the Form N-648, disability waiver for the English language and civics requirements for naturalization. The Trump administration’s first modification took effect on Feb. 12, 2019. That guidance greatly expanded the grounds for denying an N-648 application and made it more difficult for disabled applicants seeking to naturalize. The most recent changes to the Policy Manual regarding the disability waiver were issued on Dec. 4, 2020, and took effect on that date; they are minor updates that bring the guidance in line with the latest edition of the N-648 and address inconsistencies.
In addition, USCIS modified the Form N-648 with a new edition that was released in September 2020; as of Oct.13, 2020, USCIS has only accepted the July 23, 2020 edition. The new edition is much longer and more onerous than the previous version. The number of pages increased from six to nine, and the number of questions on the disability or impairment nearly doubled, from 12 to 23. New questions that were added include:
- Dates when each disability or impairment began and the dates of the diagnosis;
- A description of the severity of each disability or impairment;
- Which disabilities or impairments are expected to last over 12 months and why;
- How frequently the medical professional treats the applicant (weekly, monthly, yearly); and
- A description of how each disability or impairment affects specific functions of the applicant’s daily life that may be related to the ability to learn civics and/or English reading, writing and speaking. The medical professional must explain the basis of his or her assessment, including known symptoms of the condition, tests conducted and observations.
The revised guidance requires the Form N-648 to be filed concurrently with the Form N-400 to be considered timely. Later-filed N-648s may be accepted in certain circumstances described in the guidance and require a credible explanation along with sufficient evidence to support the explanation.
In addition, the guidance presents a long list of factors that may give rise to credible doubt and lead to finding the Form N-648 insufficient. Several of these factors simply indicate an insufficiently completed form or could have reasonable explanations, instead of pointing to possible fraud. The factors that may give rise to credible doubt include:
- The medical professional’s responses do not contain a reasonable degree of detail or fail to provide any basis for the stated diagnosis and the nexus to the inability to learn English;
- The medical professional did not explain the specific medical, clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques used in diagnosing the applicant’s medical condition;
- The form does not include a reasonable justification for not having the Form N-648 completed by the regularly treating medical professional (if applicable);
- The medical professional who certified the N-648 is not the regular treating physician;
- The Form N-648 provides information inconsistent with information provided on the naturalization application or at the interview;
- Previous medical exams did not identify a long-term medical condition, which may be inconsistent with the Form N-648’s indication of when the condition began; and
- The applicant or the medical professional failed to provide a reasonable justification for the late filing of the N-648.
The new form places unreasonable burdens on busy medical professionals and arbitrarily prevents applicants with disabilities from qualifying for naturalization. Both the form and the policy guidance contradict the purpose and intent of the underlying statute and regulations that created a means for applicants with disabilities to naturalize. CLINIC is advocating for the new administration to revoke the new policy guidance and the latest edition of the Form N-648. In the meantime, advocates can take steps to try to minimize the harm for their clients. Below are some tips and recommendations.
- Work with the medical professional and his/her staff to submit the best possible N-648 on the initial application. Review the N-648 very carefully before submission to ensure that all the questions are answered and sufficient detail is provided. A poorly completed N-648 could be cause for credible doubt and will remain in the record for comparison with any future N-648s submitted.
- Focus particularly on question 13 in Part 3 — the nexus — and ensure that the medical professional has provided a detailed response on how each disability or impairment affects the applicant’s ability to demonstrate understanding of English and/or civics.
- Avoid any references to an applicant’s illiteracy or lack of education on the N-648, as these terms are often triggers for denial.
- Prepare the applicant for the possibility that the initial N-648 will be found insufficient and the applicant may be given the opportunity to take citizenship test. Have the applicant decide in advance if he/she will attempt to take the test or decline to take it.
- Ensure that the N-648 applicant has legal representation during the interview. In our experience, the chances of approval are much higher with legal representation.
- If the first N-648 is deemed insufficient, ensure that the officer issues an RFE with written feedback on what additional information is needed.
- Ask to speak to a supervisor during the interview if the reasons for denial or a finding of insufficiency are not clear.
- Request reasonable accommodations together with the N-648. Reasonable accommodations are modifications for the applicant’s disability that can help the applicant meet the naturalization requirements. For example, requesting that a close family member or friend attend the interview for moral support can help the applicant remain calm and communicative during the interview.
Affiliate staff are encouraged to reach out to CLINIC with any case questions via Ask the Expert link on our website.