By Atty. Paul Choi

Paul Choi is an immigration attorney practicing in Encino, California. As a public service, he will answer all questions regarding immigration and naturalization for free either by mail, email at, on the phone, or in person or you may contact his administrator, Philip Abramowitz at 818 714-2226, or The following is one such question and the answer by Mr. Choi.

Question: My mother is 75 years old and have been a greencard holder for 14 years. I want her to become a U.S. citizen so she can stay in the Philippines for more than six months at a time without losing her permanent resident status. However, her English is not very good and I am afraid that she will not pass the English test. What can we do to help her pass? Are there any exceptions for persons who are elderly?

Answer: You have described a very common situation. There are instances where permanent residents of the U.S. do not have a total grasp of the English language. Although knowledge of English is not a requirement to obtaining a greencard it is a typical requirement to gain American citizenship by naturalization. Besides taking a short civics test about American government and history, applicants for naturalization will also be given a short test of both spoken and written English. The questions asked during the naturalization interview are by no means hard but they do require a basic understanding of English and the ability to at least write a simple sentence in English. The best way to pass the English part of the naturalization examination is, of course, to study and prepare for the exam. The USCIS even provides applicants with test preparation material and a CD for the computer is available to help applicants prepare. However, I understand that for some persons studying for a few months or weeks may not be sufficient to overcome weaknesses in the English language. The U.S. Immigration Laws do provide for exceptions to the English proficiency requirement in certain situations.

Age and length of residence in the U.S. is the most common way to gain an exemption from the English proficiency requirement. The law provides for two categories of persons who can be exempted from taking a test to prove knowledge of English: Persons who have been permanent residents of the U.S. for 15 years of more and are over 55 years of age and persons who have been permanent residents of the U.S. for more than 20 years and are over 50 years of age. These rules are called the 55 15 exception and the 50/20 exemption.

Persons who meet these requirements are excused from the English test but must still take and pass the American government and civics exams, although the tests can be taken in the language of their choice. The USCIS will provide an interpreter in almost any language during the examination and will ask civics questions and questions regarding the application in Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano or other dialect. The applicant simply answers the questions in his or her native tongue and the translator translates the answers into English for the naturalization examiner. This exemption opens the doors to naturalization to thousands of persons who otherwise would not qualify. No medical exam or other proof of lack of ability to speak English is required to participate in the exemption.

The second ground for exemption from the English proficiency requirement goes to those persons who have a physical or mental disability that prevents them from understanding English or learning English or even being able to study for the civics exam. This exemption applies to any qualified person regardless of age. However, to qualify the applicant must prove a disability that prevents the comprehension of English or civics. The proof must come in the form of a medical certificate from a licensed and qualified medical or psychological professional. A form is available for this purpose. Persons who would not pass the naturalization exam due to a stroke, mental illness, Alzheimers, physical disability or emotional disability can now successfully become American citizens. Even persons who lack the ability to understand and take the Oath of Allegiance can also be exempted from this requirement due to medical reasons.

My good friend, and consultant, Philip Abramowitz was instrumental in having this law passed after he successfully sued the INS ten years ago when it denied American citizenship to Vijay Rajan because she could not take the oath of allegiance due to Cerebral Palsey. Since that time thousands of otherwise ineligible persons were able to share in the honor of being “fellow Americans.” American citizenship is truly the highest award this country can bestow upon a person. If you qualify, now is the time to become an American.


Atty Paul Choi will answer all questions regarding immigration, naturalization and deportation defense for FREE. Contact him or Phil Abramowitz at or at 818 714-2226. He is located at 16000 Ventura Blvd, Ste. 1201, Encino, California 91436.

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