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Tests waived for disabled immigrants

The government unveiled long-awaited guidelines Tuesday that could allow tens of thousands of physically and mentally disabled immigrants to become citizens without passing English and U.S. civics tests.

The new rules, more than two years in the making, come as 500,000 elderly and disabled non-citizens nationwide face a cutoff this summer of federal Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Last year's federal welfare overhaul made most non-citizens ineligible for both food stamp vouchers, in some cases as early as next month, and SSI checks, which range up to about $650 monthly.

Facing a loss of what is for many their only income, aged and disabled non-citizens have been hastening to apply for naturalization and enrolling in citizenship classes. The new rules, which take effect today, could remove a major barrier for many.

However, bulging naturalization backlogs make it unlikely those applying now will attain citizenship in time to avoid the August termination date for benefits. The Immigration and Naturalization Service now takes at least nine months to process applications.

Until now, virtually all applicants had been tested on basic English skills and asked such civic questions as the number of states in the United States, the name of the president and the colors of the American flag.

While that requirement has been waived, the agency, as expected, refused to modify its mandate that applicants _ including Alzheimer's patients _ demonstrate the ability to take a "meaningful oath" of allegiance to the United States, the clinching act of citizenship. INS examiners will continue to quiz applicants about it during personal interviews.

The INS has estimated that 300,000 disabled immigrants could apply for exemptions to current requirements. Since 1995, the INS has granted a small number of exemptions on a case-by-case basis.