WASHINGTON — 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 proposal, with several Democrats saying the Trump administration is promoting an unnecessary and polarizing policy change that discriminates against older workers and is anti-immigrant. Some Republicans who favor the rule change say the current system is antiquated and does not take into account how multilingual U.S. citizens and residents have become.
The proposal reflects the Trump administration’s tougher policies toward 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 years old.
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.
In addition, applicants must prove that 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 Senaid Junuvocic, 56.
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, stepped onto a slick layer of floor glue and lost his footing. He tumbled back. His body slammed into an industrial saw at the base of the stairs, fracturing his pelvis in two places and permanently damaging his spine.
The 2008 accident brought to an end Junuvocic’s job of installing flooring with fellow Bosnian refugees. He now walks with the use of a cane in one hand and can carry no more than five pounds with other hand, medical records show.
“I can’t put food on my table,” Junuvocic said through an interpreter. “My wife has to struggle. She has to wash me, help me. All the things that I used to do, now she does it.”
As with most applicants, Junuvocic had to appeal several denials by SSA of his request for disability insurance. After appealing to federal court, he was granted another hearing, which will take place this summer before an SSA administrative law judge.
Junuvocic’s attorney will argue that the language standard should be applied in his case and should qualify him for the benefit.
In its proposal, 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 proposal says.
Altogether, 8.5 million people receive some form of federal disability insurance at an annual cost of about $133 billion, agency records show. Current projections show the program will have insufficient funds to pay all claims as soon as 2052.
Agency officials declined requests for interviews. They also declined to 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 more than 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 President Trump 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. “It’s bad for people who don’t speak English. You are talking about the most vulnerable people in America.”
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.
“If you said, ‘I can’t do that job because I don’t know how to use the computer. I can’t use a smartphone,’ you’d be expected to learn so you could continue working,” Greszler said.
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.”
The Washington Post's Josip Injic and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.