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Longer, More Difficult U.S. Citizenship Test Takes Effect

Posted by Matthew Green | Jan 10, 2021 | 0 Comments

To gain United States citizenship, immigrants must apply for naturalization in a years-long process which culminates in a single test.  The Trump administration has just made this test longer and more difficult. 

What exactly is the citizenship test? How has it been updated?

The U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) administers the naturalization process. Applicants must fill out a 20-page application, pass background checks and present extensive documentation.  They must also pass the citizenship test: a two-component assessment of English and civics.  Applicants are provided a set of questions to study and, on exam day, are asked a subset of those questions.  As of December 1, there is a new civics portion.  Applicants are now presented a series of 20 questions from a set of 128 questions; the previous version from 2008 asked 10 questions from a possible one hundred.  To pass, applicants must receive a score of at least 60%, meaning 12 or more questions have been answered correctly. 

As the Tampa Bay Times notes, the updated test has not simply added questions: “Eighty-eight of the questions are new, reflecting a greater emphasis on civics. And as before, they're not multiple choice.” The 128 questions are organized into three categories: the first and largest is on American government while the other two are on American history, and symbols and holidays. Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum, points out in a Washington Times article that there is no longer a question about the First Amendment, nor is there any reference to freedom of the press, “one of the five fundamental liberties, along with religion, that are guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

A new answer to an old question has drawn particular scrutiny: “Who does a U.S. Senator represent?” Prior to December 1, the correct answer would have been “all people of the state.” And now?  It is “citizens” in the state. This rewording is loaded, given the work the Trump administration has made to create a chasm between those within the country, from citizens to documented and undocumented immigrants.  Just recently, the Supreme Court offered the president an “interim victory” when it chose not to rule on a case challenging the addition of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.  You can read more about this case here and here.  

Two other examples of change include one question on the 10th amendment, “a favorite among conservatives questioning federal authority,” and another on the Vietnam War. The latter asks why the United States entered the war. Its “correct” answer: “to stop the spread of Communism.” No other interpretations are acceptable.

Additionally, many of these new questions involve complex phrasing. The New York Times reports that “Immigration organizations, including some that have helped thousands of people complete their naturalization applications over the past decade, warn that the new test could make it harder for poor immigrants from non-English-speaking countries to become citizens and ultimately suppress the number of immigrants who vote.”

Even before it was updated, the difficulty of the citizenship has been of note.  A 2018 national survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one in three native citizens could pass a multiple-choice version of the same question set.  The passing rate for naturalized citizens—at least on the old test—is above 90%. 

What if the naturalization test is failed?

USCIS provides the following information should someone score below 60%:

“Applicants are given two opportunities to pass the naturalization test. If you fail any part of the naturalization test at your first interview, you will be retested only on the portion of the test that you failed, between 60 and 90 days from the date of your initial interview. 

Note: If you fail the 2020 version of the civics test at your initial interview appointment, you will take the 2020 version of the civics test again at your second appointment. If you fail the 2008 version of the civics test at your initial appointment, you will take the 2008 version of the civics test again at your second appointment.” 

Why the Change?

Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for USCIS, said in a statement that the test was revised “to ensure that it remains an instrument that comprehensively assesses applicants' knowledge of American history, government and values and supports assimilation.”  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which houses USCIS, began the process of updating the test in 2018.  Hetlage also said that the new questions were “informed by an internal USCIS team, which included USCIS employees from a cross section of agency divisions” and that the revision “has met USCIS requirements for efficiency and proper rigor, while ensuring the civics test is valid, reliable and fair, and that it complies with statutory and regulatory naturalization requirements.” 

Immigrant rights activists, on the other hand, argue that there was no need for the changes.  After all, there is no evidence that the previous version could no longer “comprehensively assess.”  Eric Cohen, the executive director of a nonprofit group that helps permanent residents apply for citizenship, put it this way: “There is no legal reason, no regulatory reason to do this. …They decided on their own that they have to change it for political reasons.”

Political Reasons?

Historically, naturalization for immigrants living and working in the United States has received bipartisan support. A longer, more difficult citizenship test is certainly not indicative of unity across the Congressional aisle.  Instead, it is among one of the many steps taken by the Trump administration to restrict immigration. Regardless of its legality, this revision goes hand-in-hand with attempts to halt undocumented immigration, from the construction of a border wall to the limitation of asylum cases.

Come January 20, though, this harsh approach to immigration will come to an end with the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.  Biden has presented a detailed plan on reform, including a number of actions to be taken within the first hundred days. Perhaps a second revision of the citizenship test—one that does not purposefully target individuals—can be expected eventually.

About the Author

Matthew Green

Managing Partner. Green | Evans-Schroeder (formerly Law Offices of Matthew H. Green) focuses on the aggressive defense of immigrants. A native of Arizona, Mr. Green understands the difficulties that immigrants and families of immigrants face when a loved one is charged with a crime. He knows how frightening it can be for some...


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