Revised citizenship test is harder, more conservative and may worsen backlogs, experts say



WASHINGTON (Dec. 3, 2020)—The path to citizenship now may be harder as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services implemented revisions to its naturalization test that went into effect Tuesday.

In one of the final moves culminating four years of controversial immigration policies under Donald Trump's administration, the government is giving a new test that is lengthier, includes topics not covered previously and requires new applicants to correctly answer twice as many questions as the previous test.

"It's an awful, unfair, last-second change in a very sacred process," said Eric Cohen, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, an organization that advocates for rights for immigrants and racial justice.

"This administration has, for the last nearly four years, tried everything in its power to keep immigrants from coming here legally," Cohen said. "Once again (it) is trying to throw sand in the gears of any and all immigration processes…making it harder for people to realize their dream of becoming naturalized citizens."

Although the passing benchmark for the citizenship test remains 60 percent, applicants will now have to answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly, compared to the previous requirement of 6 out of 10. However, applicants 65 years or older who have lived in the country with "lawful permanent resident status" for at least 20 years will be allowed to take the older version of the test, according to the USCIS.

The pool from which the set of questions will be chosen has also been expanded—from 100 to 128—which means applicants will have to study more material.

"It's just a haphazard attempt to change the test for no reason at all," Cohen said. "They claimed every 10 years it's supposed to be changed, which is not true at all. There's nothing like that in the regulations or in the laws. It's all made up and lies, so it's very frustrating then that they do this on their way out the door."

USCIS declined Capital News Service's request for a comment. But the agency said in its announcement that the revisions were made "as part of a decennial update to ensure that it remains an instrument that comprehensively assesses applicants' knowledge of American history, government and civic values."

The test is also more difficult in terms of language, Cohen and Nancy Newton, the program director of the citizen preparation program at Maryland's Montgomery College, told CNS.

The new test has shifted from a high-beginning and low-intermediate level of English to a low-intermediate and high-intermediate level, and "it will certainly require highering of skills" of language learners who are applying, according to Newton.

However, Newton said the feedback she received from her students who were a part of the pilot program in which the USCIS tested this revised test was that "generally they understood even if they didn't have the answers."

Newton and her team are currently working "to change our curriculum and change our lesson plans to meet with the new content" of the test, which will be in place when new classes start in mid-January, she said.

Montgomery College is one of only two citizenship preparation courses in the Maryland, Washington and northern Virginia region. The other course is offered at Baltimore City Community College.

The revised test does not include any questions regarding geography—there were previously about 18 questions. Newton said "about a quarter of the new questions are topics that we may have brushed upon but…not have gone in depth" as they weren't on the old test, such as the Electoral College and the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

In addition to the new content, some questions have an ideological slant that is concerning, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a nonprofit and nonpartisan immigration advocacy group.

Reichlin-Melnick said he has "serious objection" to questions such as "Who does a U.S. Senator represent?" and "Who does a member of the House of Representatives represent?" The answers, according to the USCIS study guide, are citizens from their state or district, respectively.

"This is not true," Reichlin-Melnick said. "Members of Congress represent everyone who lives in their district and…this country has always relied on the principle that you don't have to be a citizen in order to be represented."

"However, the Trump administration has repeatedly pushed back against this basic idea of what it means to be represented," he said.

Another question that displays "sort of a subtle bias towards a more conservative viewpoint" according to Reichlin-Melnick, is "What is the purpose of the 10th Amendment?" This is the only question about a constitutional amendment that does not have to do with voting rights or does not include an amendment as one of several possible answers, such as "the President can serve only two terms. Why?"

Not asking about other amendments and "choosing only that one specific amendment raises eyebrows," Reichlin-Melnick said. "The amendment is about states' rights and that is a thing where conservative legal commentators believe the 10th Amendment is particularly important to this country."

In addition to the added questions, increased difficulty and questionable content, one of the effects of these revisions could be worsened processing backlogs, which have already been impacted by the pandemic, experts told CNS.

Since the questions being asked have doubled from 10 to 20, the interview process could take more time, which may mean that "they're going to be able to interview fewer people every day," Cohen said. That could lead to "long and longer delays for people trying to become a U.S. citizen," Reichlin-Melnick said.

The current processing time for naturalization applications is 10 to 13 months in Baltimore and 11 to 15-and-a-half months in Washington, according to USCIS's website.

Due to the backlog and long processing times, the new administration of President Joe Biden could reverse Trump's move before any applicant actually takes the test. But whether such a reversal will happen is unclear, Cohen said.

Changing back to the old version of the test "is what (ILRC is) going to ask them to do," Cohen said. "We certainly hope (they do) because that would be the right thing to do."

Reichlin-Melnick held similar expectations from the incoming administration.

"There's nothing wrong with changing questions but it's a matter of making the test more difficult and longer for no apparent reason, and I certainly would hope that a new administration would take a close look at reversing some of the changes that were made," he said.

The revised test could deter some people. So might a nearly doubled application fee—from $640 to $1,170—if it ever went into effect. The higher fee was set to take effect Oct. 19 but has been blocked by a federal district court in California.

"There's probably going to be some discouragement," Cohen said. "But you're talking about a really resilient group of people, immigrants who have gone through a lot worse than having a more difficult test."

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