Thoughts on the Revised Civics Test for Naturalization Interviews

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, announced they are implementing a new version of the civics test required as part of the naturalization process, namely, they have increased the list of possible questions from 100 to 128. They have also doubled the number of questions posed at the interview from 10 to 20 and now require 12 correct answers to pass (though the passing percentage remains the same at 60 percent). The changes will affect those who apply for naturalization after December 1st, 2020. Anyone who applied prior to this date will receive the old version of the test, even if their interview will not take place until after the given date. Those over the age of 65 and who have held permanent residence for over 20 years will also be exempt; they will take the previous version of the test regardless of when they apply for citizenship.

The stated intent behind these changes is to ensure that prospective citizens are fully informed of and prepared to exercise their rights and obligations as a US citizen. “Naturalization allows immigrants to become fully vested members of American society, with the same rights and responsibilities as citizens by birth, and offering a fair test, which prepares naturalization applicants for these responsibilities, is of utmost importance to our agency,” stated Joseph Edlow, Deputy Director for Policy at USCIS. He went on to state, “USCIS has diligently worked on revising the naturalization test since 2018, relying on input from experts in the field of adult education to ensure that this process is fair and transparent.” USCIS mentioned that the increased number of questions will give potential citizens more opportunities to learn about the history of the United States and its government while studying for the test.

The test questions are broken up into three main categories: American Government, American History, and Symbols and Holidays. The government section is further divided into principles of American Government, systems of government, and rights and responsibilities. This section has questions regarding The Constitution and its amendments, the three branches of government, and the various rights and responsibilities citizens are entitled to. The history section covers everything from the arrival of the pilgrims up to present day. The last, and smallest, section, called symbols and holidays is self-explanatory. There is no shortage of material to be covered. Prospective citizens should begin their studies as early as possible.

The new test has been received negatively by many in the immigration field. One dispute highlights that the questions are notably more challenging than the previous version. The questions also cover such a wide area of knowledge that the average American citizen would be hard pressed to pass the test. Someone who is from another country and not a native English speaker will have a far more difficult challenge to face. Many questions are open-ended and are vaguely worded, making it difficult to understand what answer is required. For example, one question poses, “It is important for all men age 18 through 25 to register for the Selective Service. Name one reason why.” The first given answer is that it is required by law to do so, though the question suggests there is a deeper reason why men would choose to register. In a similar manner, another question asks why it is important to pay federal taxes. Two out of the four given answers simply state that it is required by law. These questions put an unnecessary burden on the individual interpreting the question, as importance is not something that can be measured objectively. Therefore, not only must an individual know the correct answer to this question, but also the correct way to frame it.

Additionally, it will be up to the individual officer administering the test whether to accept an answer that is close to, but not quite exactly, the answer they are looking for. Subjectivity is never welcome in matters of vital importance; it leaves the success or failure of a prospective citizen to the bias of any particular officer on any given day. This situation is particularly damaging to non-native English speakers. Herein lies the truth about the changes regarding the test requirements. As a continuation of the running theme of the Trump administration, they aim to make it easier to deny immigration benefits to as many people as possible. Poorly worded test questions help achieve this goal.

It is not difficult to imagine these changes were created as roadblocks to citizenship by a president who carries a disdain for immigrants. The 2008 version of this test did not have any flaws that required correction. The previous version went through extensive efforts to update the test while keeping the number of questions the same. Prior to the update, many questions were seen as American trivia that were irrelevant to actual life in America. The test went through a multi-year process of development that included input from a panel of immigrant advocates. The 2020 version evaded both of these processes. The new test, in addition to the proposed increase in fees associated with the application, is a blatant way of complicating the process and preventing eligible people from becoming citizens. While the fee increase (set to be increased by 80%) is currently held up in court, the new test is set to be administered to anyone who applies for citizenship after December 1st of 2020. Hopefully, this is something the Biden Administration will address when they enter office. However, with the long list of more pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely it may take time. For a full list of the questions and answers, follow the link below:

https://www.uscis.gov/citizenship-resource-center/the-2020-version-of-the-civics-test/128-civics-questions-and-answers-2020-version

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