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Immigration and Disability in the United States and Canada
Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice (2016)
  • Mark C. Weber
Disability arises from the dynamic between people’s physical and mental conditions and
the physical and attitudinal barriers in the environment. Applying this idea about
disability to United States and Canadian immigration law draws attention to barriers to
entry and eventual citizenship for individuals who have disabilities. Historically, North
American law excluded many classes of immigrants, including those with intellectual
disabilities, mental illness, physical defects, and conditions likely to cause dependency.
Though exclusions for individuals likely to draw excessive public resources and those
with communicable diseases still exist in Canada and the United States, in recent years
the United States permitted legalization for severely disabled undocumented immigrants
already in the country, and both countries abolished most exclusions from entry for
immigrants with specific disabling conditions. Liberalization also occurred with regard
to U.S. naturalization requirements.

Challenges continue, however. Under U.S. law, vast discretion remains with regard to
the likely-public-charge exclusion, because consular officers abroad decide unilaterally
whether to issue immigrant visas. Moreover, conduct related to mental disability,
including petty criminality, can result in removal from the United States, and individuals
with mental disabilities have only modest safeguards in removal proceedings. In Canada,
families who have children with disabilities find themselves excluded from legal status
because of supposed excessive demands on public resources, although an individual’s
disability may provide grounds for avoiding removal in certain cases. The relaxation of
some immigration exclusions in Canada and the U.S. and of some U.S. requirements for
citizenship illustrates a significant, though conspicuously incomplete, removal of
disability-related barriers in North American law and society.
  • Disability,
  • Disability Rights,
  • Immigration,
  • Canada,
  • Naturalization,
  • Citizenship,
  • Public Charge,
  • Welfare
Publication Date
June 13, 2016
Citation Information
Mark C. Weber, Immigration and Disability in the United States and Canada, 32 Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 19 (2015)