A blind man failed the U.S. citizenship test after it wasn’t offered in BrailleBy
March 6, 2020
Lucio Delgado was ready to become a citizen.
Born 100 percent blind, the 23-year-old legal permanent resident had been studying English for the past six years since coming to the United States from Mexico as a teenager, learning by listening in school and on the radio. He practiced all the civics questions that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers would ask him for the citizenship test. He got a vision exam by an optometrist so he could prove he is legally blind, asking in his application that he be given the test in Braille.
But on May 21, Delgado failed the test — because there was one thing the blind man didn’t anticipate.
That day in May, Delgado had whizzed through the civics portion, which was oral. He spelled all the English words correctly when asked — words like Thanksgiving and president.
But then came the big problem: the reading portion of the exam.
The agent said they received his request for Braille, but, unfortunately, USCIS did not have Braille available.
They just had large print.
“I’m like, I don’t read large print,” he said. “I’m totally blind.”
Still, for the record, the officer gave him “three attempts to read a sentence” in English, as USCIS describes it in a letter Delgado provided. And, predictably, whether the print was large or small, Delgado couldn’t read what he couldn’t see.
The agent told him that he should come back for a second interview another time so the agents could waive the reading test — but only if he visited an ophthalmologist, rather than an optometrist, to certify he is 100 percent blind. Delgado, who does not have health insurance, said he could not afford to see the specialist.
And so late last month, the letter arrived in the mail from USCIS: “Unfortunately, you were unable to read a sentence in the English language,” it said. “Regrettably, you were unable to achieve a passing score on the reading portion of the naturalization test.”
For Delgado, the entire experience has been “astonishing.”
“I really wasn’t expecting not to be provided that very basic accommodation,” he told The Washington Post this week. “It was quite a shocker, honestly.”
Delgado’s situation is exactly the kind of barrier to obtaining citizenship that USCIS has been working on fixing after years of not offering the citizenship test in Braille to blind immigrants, according to a 2018 USCIS memo describing the problems disabled immigrants face.
Spokespeople for USCIS told The Post that the agency finally started to offer the test in Braille to blind applicants in November — just months after Delgado took it.
USCIS said that it does not comment on individual cases due to privacy protections, but added that “USCIS has policies in place to ensure accommodations are provided for people with disabilities when requested, and we make every effort to ensure that these policies are followed at all time.”
“If USCIS becomes aware of an error in adhering to these policies, we make every effort to ensure corrections are made,” the statement said.
Darcy Kriha, Delgado’s pro bono attorney who handles cases involving the Americans With Disabilities Act, said she is hopeful the agency will fix Delgado’s case. She said USCIS has since contacted her client after a CBS Chicago first reported his story last week and has set up another appointment with him on March 13. Delgado believes he may finally be accommodated, leading to citizenship.
But Kriha said the barriers that Delgado encountered along the way never should have happened, including being asked to prove his disability with a doctor’s note despite it being obvious.
“The ADA itself does not require diagnosis by an MD,” Kriha said. “Can a public agency decide that’s the criteria it wants to adopt? I suppose so, but only to the point that it does not become a barrier. For Lucio, it was definitely a barrier.”
Delgado was born diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, meaning his eyes developed abnormally because he was premature. He said his family came to the United States with green cards to escape fear of local drug cartels and so he would have better educational opportunities and accommodations for his disability. He was set on becoming a U.S. citizen from the moment he set foot in the country — “Aug. 27, 2013 at 5:30 in the morning,” he said. Soon, he settled in Chicago and later Pembroke Township, Ill., where he helps out on his family farm.
He said he never encountered any problems being accommodated until arriving for his citizenship interview.
“This was my first letdown in America,” he said.
Disabled immigrants are allowed to petition for a medical waiver on certain portions of a test, but only if there is no accommodation that can help them pass it. The only accommodation that would have helped Delgado is Braille.
But Delgado said he hit a wall when the USCIS officer told him he would need to have an ophthalmologist fill out the medical waiver.
Kriha said that making Delgado visit the specialist after he already went to an optometrist for an eye exam seemed to be unnecessary. Delgado’s eyes are clouded over, and he uses a white cane to get around. His disability should have been obvious, Kriha said.
“USCIS is going to have to reexamine how they deal with these issues,” she said.
In the 2018 memo, USCIS identified a number of problems that disabled immigrants may encounter when trying to access the agency’s services, including the citizenship test. The report was the result of a 2013 Department of Homeland Security directive that ordered the agency to evaluate those problems, in part by reviewing complaints from the public for “failure to provide reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities.” USCIS said some problems were “systemic."
The problems included an ineffective process for requesting accommodations, a “variety of issues” relating to sign language interpreters, and failure to provide materials in Braille.
“I think that the burden is unreasonably shifted to persons with disabilities to petition for their accommodations,” said Jake Benhabib, a Boston-based pro bono attorney at Project Citizenship who is unrelated to Delgado’s case. “And they have to do it in a very particular bureaucratic way, which is unclear and requires several steps — rather than the government really being able to provide it for them.”
Benhabib said some clients are bedridden, nonverbal or suffering from Alzheimer’s or mental disabilities that make it difficult for them to learn. Yet in his experience, he said the government “regularly denies” the medical waivers either due to clerical errors by doctors or not believing the person’s disability truly disqualifies them from passing a test.
That issue was the subject of a 2017 federal lawsuit in New York filed against the agency by several immigrant rights groups, including Project Citizenship. Jojo Annobil, the executive director of Immigrant Justice Corps and who worked on the lawsuit, told The Post that officers were “substituting their own judgment for what the doctors had said, almost by saying, 'I don’t believe you have this kind of disability.”
A federal judge dismissed the case on the grounds that the immigrants either hadn’t exhausted administrative remedies or that USCIS allowed some of the plaintiffs to be naturalized after the lawsuit was filed, making their claims moot. The groups are appealing the decision.
In Delgado’s case, however, Annobil said there should be no doubt about his disability.
“I don’t think anyone who has seen Mr. Delgado would think he’s faking blindness,” he said.