The Intersection of Legislation, Immigration, and Disability

Toby Long October 30, 2018

The rights and needs of people with disabilities are being increasingly recognized in the human rights and development fields. However, these same rights and needs have been historically overlooked in the context of migration. Until 2010, when the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called upon states and UN agencies “to protect and assist refugees with disabilities against all forms of discrimination and to provide sustainable and appropriate support in addressing all their needs,” there had been no disability dimension integrated into international mandates or policies on migration (Refugees and Migrants with Disabilities, 2017).

There are 244 million international migrants (individuals residing in a country different from their country of birth) living all over the world, representing 3.3% of the world’s population (Connor, 2016). This absolute number is up from 173 million in 2000 and 220 million in 2010. The United States is home to more international migrants than any other country - 46.6 million - but only 14% of its population is foreign-born, compared to 28% and 22% of Australia and Canada’s populations, respectively (Connor, 2016). Sixteen million refugees - individuals who cross borders seeking protection from war, persecution, and violence - account for almost 8% of the total worldwide population of international migrants (Connor, 2016).

There is a lack of data regarding the number of international migrants with disabilities, but it is evident that immigrants and refugees with disabilities are more likely to be sidelined in every aspect of humanitarian assistance due to physical, environmental, and societal barriers against accessing information, health, and rehabilitation services and human rights protection (Refugees and Migrants with Disabilities, 2017).

Aside from the challenges they face before and during forced displacement, the legal process - for all refugees, regardless of ability or disability - is long and arduous. Refugee resettlement requires numerous administrative steps before being assigned to a domestic resettlement location and prior to entry into the United States, including: 1) registration with the UN High Commission on Refugees or UNHCR, 2) multiple in-depth interviews, 3) security checks by the F.B.I., the National Counter-terrorism Center, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community, 4) biometric data collection, 5) a cultural orientation class, and 6) a medical check (U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, 2017). Refugees with disabilities are at risk of not being approved for domestic resettlements if they have a history of or significant risk for harmful behavior toward themselves or others (Disability and Immigration Law in the United States of America, 2013).

The challenges for refugees with disabilities have only been heightened with immigration laws and policies currently in flux. President Trump’s promise to rigorously enforce immigration laws - ending the selective enforcement policies of the Obama administration where individuals who had committed crimes were targeted - is haunting parents of children with disabilities who are in the US illegally (Wiener, 2017). Parents can choose to relocate with their children, to Mexico for example, but many of them would not get the same financial support or quality of care for their children with disabilities (Wiener, 2017). And many of the children were born in the US and are US citizens.

In his first address to a joint session of Congress in February of 2017, President Trump advocated for a shift toward a merit-based system of immigration (Perry, 2017). This new system would prioritize high-skilled, well-educated individuals who would likely never need public assistance - Trump even cited Australia and Canada as examples of countries that give preferences to individuals based on education, employment, and financial means (What a ‘Merit-Based’ System Would Mean, 2017).

The US has actually been somewhat of a trailblazer with regards to refugee admission policy as it related to refugees with disabilities. In 1996, US policy transitioned away from its primary emphasis on accepting those facing political persecution by introducing a new system for determining refugee resettlement. This revised system had an enhanced focus on groups of varying levels of priority, with the “priority one” level given to the most vulnerable, including people with disabilities (Mirza, 2010). This is in sharp contrast to Canada’s immigration policy: the decades-old Immigration and Refugee Protection Act allows for people to be turned away if they “might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demands on health or social services” (Zaikowski, 2017). This exclusionary policy harkens back to the outdated concept, rooted in a combination of eugenics and utilitarian economics, that people with disabilities are not contributing members of societies and they consume too many resources.

If President Trump’s recent comments are any indication, he would like to see a shift away from this priority given to the most vulnerable refugees (like individuals with disabilities) and only accept individuals who will be “useful” in a purely economic sense of the term. This is concerning in many regards: first of all, who has the power to determine somebody’s ‘merit,’ a concept that is fairly abstract and a word that evades definition even on paper? Chances are, given the rest of President Trump’s government appointments during his term thus far, they will not be particularly well-suited to complete the task they have been assigned (in this case, vetting refugees based on merit) and certainly not be equipped with the knowledge or expertise to consider the disability dimensions of the process. Even more appalling is the prospect of rejecting individuals who would potentially need public assistance – we have to look just north of our border to hear heartbreaking stories of families denied asylum in Canada because one of their children has a birth defect or Down syndrome.

As best stated by David Perry in a headline for his article appearing in The Washington Post last fall, “under Trump, fighting for disability rights means fighting for immigration rights.” He recounts the harrowing tale of a young girl with cerebral palsy who moved to the US with her parents when she was only three months old to receive better medical care (Perry, 2017). During an ambulance ride last October, immigration authorities stopped the vehicle at a checkpoint, determined she was undocumented, and insisted on following her into the operating room before taking her into custody (Perry, 2017). While most people understand the need for immigration laws, this particular scenario struck many as an egregious lack of compassion. It is still an open question how to balance immigration constraints with humanitarian needs, especially for those with disabilities.

Angelica Griggs-Demmin (SNHS ’19)

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References Connor, P. (2016, December 15). International migration: Key findings from the U.S., Europe and the world. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fac...

Disability & Immigration Law in the United States of America. (2013). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from http://www.ccdonline.ca/en/soc...

Hurley, L. (2018, January 20). Supreme Court to decide legality of Trump travel ban. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/articl...

International Migration Report: United Nations of Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2017). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from http://www.un.org/en/developme...

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Mirza, M., & Heinemann, A. W. (2011). Service needs and service gaps among refugees with disabilities resettled in the United States. Disability and Rehabilitation, 34(7), 542-552. doi:10.3109/09638288.2011.611211

Mirza, M., Luna, R., Mathews, B., Hasnain, R., Hebert, E., Niebauer, A., & Mishra, U. D. (2013). Barriers to Healthcare Access Among Refugees with Disabilities and Chronic Health Conditions Resettled in the US Midwest. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 16(4), 733-742. doi:10.1007/s10903-013-9906-5

Perry, D. (2017, October 28). Perspective | Under Trump, fighting for disability rights means fighting for immigration rights. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com...

Refugees and migrants with disabilities. (2017). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.un.org/development...

Timeline of the Muslim Ban. (2017, December 05). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/...

U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. (2017, January 20). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.state.gov/j/prm/ra...

What A 'Merit-Based' Immigration System Would Mean. (2017, March 04). Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/2017/03/04...

Wiener, J. (2017, May 19). The Deportation Fears of Immigrants With Disabled Children. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/he...

Zaikowski, C. (2017, February 03). Canada is a progressive immigration policy dream - unless you have a disability. Retrieved April 20, 2018, from https://www.washingtonpost.com... _________________________________________________________________________ NOTE: For more information on this issue see: Trump Administration Seeks to Bar Immigrants With Disabilities by Michelle R. Davis. Found at: https://www.disabilityscoop.co...