(Published in The Record of Hackensack, NJ. on March 23, 1997)
She can still see me, but her mind doesn't let her recognize me as her son. She can still talk to me, but she rambles incoherently, never mentioning the two words I long to hear, "mi hijo" — my son.
It's as if the woman who gave me life was already dead, unable to give me the motherly advice and support I had grown to depend on. Now she depends on me and my brother. Although she is still alive, her Alzheimer's affliction makes her more in need of medical attention than ever before.
Because she is an American citizen, Lilia Perez Martinez, 78, a resident of Miami, is covered by Medicare benefits. But it was by the skin of her teeth that she was naturalized last year, barely passing the U.S. civics test she was required to take, although she had already been diagnosed as an Alzheimer's patient.
She was allowed to take the test in Spanish. Given her age and many years in this country, the strain of that process — for a person who was losing her mind — was cruel punishment. And yet she had to endure it, to avoid becoming a victim of the mean-spirited legislation that was being debated in Congress — and the prospect of losing her health-care benefits.
As I urged my brother Benny in Florida to help my mother become a citizen, I could sense his frustration. "How do you teach a person who is rapidly losing her memory to memorize questions for an exam?" Benny would ask me.
When my mother finally took her oral civics test, in the early stages of her bout with Alzheimer's more than a year ago, she almost failed. It was thanks to my brother's persistence, coaching her for many weeks before the test, that she was able to remember the colors of the American flag, the number of states in the union, and responses to other civics questions.
"The worst part was when they asked her the name of the president of the United States," Benny said. "She was so nervous that she said it was Fidel Castro, but then she corrected herself and said Clinton. It was so painful to watch her go through that."
My mother's traumatic experience, and the frustration all her relatives felt, came back to haunt us this week, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service unveiled new guidelines that could allow thousands of physically and mentally disabled immigrants to become citizens without passing English proficiency and U.S. civics tests.
The new regulations, which took effect Wednesday, were mandated by Congress more than two years ago. But it took the INS that long to develop them.
Since 1995, INS officers had worked on a case-by-case basis, granting a small number of exceptions as they addressed the needs of elderly and disabled applicants seeking citizenship but having difficulties taking the tests.
Had the INS not dragged its bureaucratic wheels for so long -- in spite of two years of harsh criticism and a lawsuit from disabled-rights groups and immigrant advocates -- the painful experience endured by my mother and many other disabled Americans who have become citizens in the last year might have been avoided.
The new rules were not created as a result of last year's federal welfare reform law. But because they came as 500,000 elderly and disabled legal immigrants are desperately rushing to become citizens to avoid losing benefits, the news, with few exceptions, was reported as a positive step by the INS.
Although the new rules remove a major barrier for many, there are so many immigrants applying for naturalization — almost 1 million applicants are in the pipeline nationwide — that it is highly unlikely that those applying now will become citizens in time to avoid losing their benefits, at least temporarily, starting in August. In New Jersey, the backlog of applicants makes the waiting period more than seven months long.
As the news media tried to put a human face on the upcoming cuts, INS officials claimed the new rules "demonstrate the compassion and sensitivity that the INS has for persons with disabilities." That may be true, but did they have to take more than two years to show it?
Making matters worse, the new rules still have a major flaw. Incredibly, the INS will still require applicants, including Alzheimer's patients, to demonstrate the ability to take a "meaningful oath" of allegiance to the United States.
While the oath is usually administered in a mass swearing-in ceremony, INS officials will continue to quiz applicants individually before the ceremony. People who can't even recognize their own children will still be expected to make a meaningful pledge. It's absurd.
Seeking to modify the oath requirement, advocates for immigrants and the disabled have urged the INS to allow guardians to attest on behalf of applicants who demonstrate they are incapable of comprehension. But the new INS rules direct its officers to accept "a wide variety of signals" of consent, including "a simple head nod, eye blinking, or other signals specific to the individual that clearly mean 'yes' or 'no.' "
Anyone who has ever spent time with an Alzheimer's patient, aware of how far the mind is from reality, has to know this is a farce.
When my mother took the oath on Feb. 20, 1996, she was probably unaware of the significance of what she was doing. Luckily, she was in a habit of repeating whatever she heard. When an Immigration officer asked her if she "wanted to become a citizen," she repeated the same phrase. She complied with my brother's request for her to raise her hand and, wouldn't you know it, she became a naturalized American.
And she deserves it. She had been a teacher in Cuba, but when she came here as a political refugee, she worked as a maid in Miami Beach hotels so that I could stay in school. For 25 years, she and my father, now deceased, paid their taxes and never collected any form of welfare until after their retirement.
They had not felt the need to become U.S. citizens because they expected to return to a free Cuba someday. But my mother was extremely grateful to this country — patriotic and sentimental — for having given my family safe haven when we fled from Castro's communist dictatorship. My only consolation is that her mind won't let her understand how cruelly she was treated toward the end of her life.