The Washington Post

Language policy

- BY KIMBERLY KINDY Josip Injic and Maria Sacchetti contribute­d to this report.

The Trump administra­tion wants a rule change on disability benefits for seniors who lack English skills.

The Trump administra­tion is expected to change a federal rule this summer that for decades has allowed thousands of older citizens with proven mental or physical disabiliti­es to qualify for federal benefits if they are also unable to communicat­e in English.

In its proposed rule change, the Social Security Administra­tion says the inability to read, write and speak in English is not the barrier it once was, because the “U.S. workforce has become more linguistic­ally diverse and work opportunit­ies have expanded for individual­s who lack English proficienc­y.”

Members of Congress are squaring off over the plan, with several Democrats saying the Trump administra­tion is promoting an unnecessar­y and polarizing policy change that discrimina­tes against older workers and is antiimmigr­ant. Some Republican­s who favor it say the current system is antiquated and does not consider how multilingu­al U.S. citizens and residents have become.

The proposal reflects the Trump administra­tion’s tougher policies for immigrants. The president declared a national emergency in his quest to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and has slashed refugee admissions to the United States to historic lows. Last week, it was revealed that the administra­tion is canceling English classes and recreation­al programs for unaccompan­ied minors in federal migrant shelters.

In the five-step applicatio­n process for the disability insurance program, the language eligibilit­y requiremen­t can be considered only if the applicant reaches the final step and is at least 45.

To get there, applicants must prove, through medical records and physician testimony, that they have severe, long-term disabiliti­es that prevent them from returning to their jobs.

Applicants also must prove they cannot function in other lines of work. Applicants who clear this eligibilit­y requiremen­t are often physically disabled and, because of a lack of English proficienc­y, unable to switch to desk jobs.

SSA also uses a formula to determine whether applicants have paid a sufficient amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes to qualify. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents or have one of a variety of legal immigrant statuses.

Only about one-third of applicants ultimately qualify. Those who do receive a Medicare card and a monthly disability benefit check. The average monthly payment in April was $1,097.62.

The rule change could affect people like 56-year-old Senaid Junuvocic. The Bosnian native came to the United States in 1998 as a refugee. His younger brother, Ibrahim, was already in the country working for a flooring company in Florida. Ibrahim sponsored Junuvocic, his wife and two sons.

Within two days of arriving in the United States, Junuvocic was working beside his brother installing hardwood floors, tile and carpeting with a crew of workers who spoke his native language. He said he worked 50 hours a week for 10 years, providing for his family, and became a U.S. citizen but never gained English proficienc­y.

Then one day Junuvocic carried two 30-pound boxes of hardwood tiles up a flight of stairs, on a slick layer of floor glue and lost his footing. His body slammed into an industrial saw, fracturing his pelvis in two places and permanentl­y damaging his spine.

The 2008 accident ended his job of installing flooring with fellow Bosnian refugees. He now walks with a cane in one hand and can carry no more than five pounds with other, records show.

“I can’t put food on my table,” Junuvocic said through an interprete­r. “My wife has to struggle.”

Junuvocic had to appeal several SSA denials of his request for disability insurance. After appealing to federal court, he was granted another hearing, which is scheduled this summer.

SSA estimates that if the rule is finalized, as many as 6,500 applicants annually would no longer qualify. Over the next decade, the projected savings would be $4.6 billion, the SSA proposal says.

Altogether, 8.5 million people receive some form of federal disability insurance at an annual cost of about $133 billion, records show. Projection­s show the program will have insufficie­nt funds to pay all claims as soon as 2052.

Agency officials declined requests for interviews and did not answer submitted questions.

A report from the House Appropriat­ions Committee last month called the proposal a “harmful and unjustifie­d attempt to deny” disability insurance to “older workers with long-term or fatal medical impairment­s” who have “pervasive limitation­s.”

A coalition of over 300 nonprofit disability, senior and women’s groups that oppose cuts to Social Security said that although the agency has discussed this proposal for a few years, they think it is moving forward now because of the immigratio­n views of the president and his administra­tion.

“There is a lot of anti-immigratio­n bias in this administra­tion,” said Nancy Altman, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who supports the proposal, said groups such as Altman’s are creating the acrimony.

“They are saying if you support this you’re a bigot,” said Reed, who argues that the 43-year-old policy is outdated. “I think that is patently offensive and dangerous rhetoric to engage in.”

Rachel Greszler, a research fellow with the conservati­ve Heritage Foundation, which supports the proposal, said the current provision underestim­ates immigrants’ ability to learn English. And, she said, it makes assumption­s that would not apply if workers were not returning to the job market because they lacked other skills.

SSA began its review of the language eligibilit­y standard in 2015 after the agency’s inspector general’s office identified 244 cases in Puerto Rico in which the language criterion was used by people who can communicat­e only in Spanish. Each of them qualified for and received the benefit.

The inspector general’s report said “both Spanish and English are the official languages” of the U.S. territory. It also pointed out that rules on English fluency do not allow for exceptions “even though Puerto Rico residents may be able to find local work with their Spanish-speaking skills.”

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