Immigration Reform: Reducing Barriers to Naturalization for Older Immigrants

BY DOUA THOR, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SOUTHEAST ASIA RESOURCE ACTION CENTER (SEARAC)

The Senate recently introduced a bill on immigration reform. The bill is extensive, and covers many issues. Here, we wanted to highlight a few provisions on naturalization for older immigrants.

The bill includes promising pieces on reducing barriers to naturalization for older immigrants. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are more than 5 million immigrants over the age of 65 in the United States. Immigration reform presents a new opportunity—the best in years—to allow older new Americans to fully participate in American society and life, legally as well as civically.

The bill currently being discussed in the Senate proposes a few adaptations to two pieces of the naturalization process: the English language test and the civics test. Waiving the English language requirement would allow individuals to interview and take the civics test in their native language. In italics is the previous ruling:

1. Waive the English language requirement and civics test requirement for anyone over age 65 and lawfully present for at least five years. The current English language and civics requirements waivers only apply to physical and developmental impairment cases.

2. Waive the English language requirement for anyone who is over 60 years of age and lawfully present for at least 10 years. The current law requires individuals to be at least 55 years of age and lawfully present for at least 15 years, or at least 50 years of age and lawfully present for at least 20 years. These exceptions remain in the proposed bill.

3. Allow the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security to waive the civics requirement on a case-by-case basis for anyone who is over 60 years of age and lawfully present for at least 10 years. Previously, the law required individuals to be at least 65 years of age and be lawfully present for at least 20 years.

In 2010, 2.8 million older immigrants were Limited English Proficient, and nearly half had less than a high school education. Reducing the residency and age requirements and modifying the English language and civics requirements will make it easier for older immigrants to naturalize.

However, other concerns remain for older immigrants that are unaddressed in the bill. There are half a million older individuals age 55 and older who are undocumented. While the immigration bill offers a path to citizenship for individuals, the long waiting period to naturalize does not allow access to safety net programs like Medicaid or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, nor does it accept work credits towards earned benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security. In addition, there is also the question of what happens to older immigrants who are unable to naturalize, even with the reduced barriers. For instance, older refugees are limited to seven years of access to Supplemental Security Income. Those who are unable to naturalize will lose access to these lifeline benefits.

For more on older immigrants and immigration reform, please also see our most recent Diverse Elders Coalition statement on immigration reform.