Document Type


Publication Date

June 2016


Disability arises from the dynamic between people’s physical and mental conditions andthe physical and attitudinal barriers in the environment. Applying this idea aboutdisability to United States and Canadian immigration law draws attention to barriers toentry and eventual citizenship for individuals who have disabilities. Historically, NorthAmerican law excluded many classes of immigrants, including those with intellectualdisabilities, mental illness, physical defects, and conditions likely to cause dependency.Though exclusions for individuals likely to draw excessive public resources and thosewith communicable diseases still exist in Canada and the United States, in recent yearsthe United States permitted legalization for severely disabled undocumented immigrantsalready in the country, and both countries abolished most exclusions from entry forimmigrants with specific disabling conditions. Liberalization also occurred with regardto U.S. naturalization requirements.Challenges continue, however. Under U.S. law, vast discretion remains with regard tothe likely-public-charge exclusion, because consular officers abroad decide unilaterallywhether to issue immigrant visas. Moreover, conduct related to mental disability,including petty criminality, can result in removal from the United States, and individualswith mental disabilities have only modest safeguards in removal proceedings. In Canada,families who have children with disabilities find themselves excluded from legal statusbecause of supposed excessive demands on public resources, although an individual’sdisability may provide grounds for avoiding removal in certain cases. The relaxation ofsome immigration exclusions in Canada and the U.S. and of some U.S. requirements forcitizenship illustrates a significant, though conspicuously incomplete, removal ofdisability-related barriers in North American law and society.