Before they can take the oath of allegiance, prospective U.S. citizens must go through a number of steps, one of the last of which is a civics test to see what they know of their new country. That test gets its first upgrade in a decade next week, a move that concerns some advocates. (Photo by U.S. Coast Guard Academy, Creative Commons)

November 30, 2020

Cronkite News

Citizenship test gets harder … could you pass it?

The good news for prospective citizens is that they will soon have more time to take the civics test that has long been a critical part of the citizenship process.

The bad news is that, beginning next week, the test will be twice as long. And harder. And there’s no bonus for getting a passing score early.

“It’s the position … of this administration of making life harder, not only for undocumented immigrants but also for immigrants that are currently in a legal process,” said Manuel Gutierrez, an immigration specialist at Promise Arizona. “It’s making it tough for everybody.”

Take a sample test here.

But while advocates like Gutierrez see the changes as part of a larger USCIS move to discourage immigrants, the agency said the changes are just part of a decennial review of the naturalization test aimed at “updating, maintaining, and improving a test that is current and relevant.”

The test is the best known, and usually final, step in a citizenship process that can take years for some immigrants and the changes, which take effect Tuesday, have been in the works for close to 18 months.

A passing grade will still be 60% correct, but the new test doubles the number of questions from 10 to 20 and expands the pool of questions that could be included on any test from the current 100 to 128. That means would-be citizens will have more to master before sitting down to take the test – and more to potentially get wrong.

“You’re talking about doubling, tripling the length of the test and increasing the risk that people may be called back for a second interview at a time when USCIS is in a massive budget crisis,” said Randy Capps, the director of research at the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s not just harder on the applicants, it’s also harder on the agency.”

Matt Crapo, a contractor for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, called the changes insignificant, saying they “will have minimal impact on immigrants” and the agency.

“It’s not like they have to answer a higher percentage of questions correctly in order to pass,” Crapo said. “I don’t think that increasing the number of questions to 20 is a significant burden on any applicants.”

But Gutierrez said the changes, which were just announced Nov. 13, will throw a curveball at immigrants who have spent a long time in the system.

“The best advice that we give these people is prepare yourself as early as possible,” Gutierrez said. “Some of the people who come to our citizenship classes, they attend them for four to five months in a row.”

Those who have been studying for months may find questions or answers are phrased differently or their answers have changed. And the new test is not only longer – it’s harder.

Gone are questions about which ocean sits on which coast of the country. Added are questions about the Federalist Papers and Alexander Hamilton’s achievements.

“The revised test includes more questions that test the applicant’s understanding of U.S. history and civics, in line with the statutory requirements,” said a USCIS press release on the changes.

Additional questions about the purpose of the Electoral College, the Founding Fathers and expanded sections of historical information were added to the set of 128 questions.

Test-takers could get a break with the new test, however, as some of the acceptable answers were expanded. A question about Martin Luther King Jr.’s significance, for example, can now be answered that he worked to “ensure that people would ‘not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’”

The new test also eliminated certain parts of the previous test. Questions like “When is National Tax Day?” and “Name one problem for the Civil War” vanished.

Capps said it’s more than just additional questions that are cause for concern. USCIS is “asking more questions, they’re asking for more evidence more often … they’re drawing out the process applying to citizenship to make it more difficult.”

It’s one more obstacle immigrants should not have to face, Capps said.

“It doesn’t play itself out with people necessarily getting denied, but people could be deterred,” he said.

Gutierrez said that for many people seeking citizenship, the test is “actually the most important barrier.” Many have jobs where studying is all but impossible and others may already struggle with a test administered in English, he said. The changes just add more fear and anxiety for immigrants heading to a USCIS office to take their civics exam.

Capps said the incoming Biden administration will likely be able to overturn many of the policy and administrative changes passed by the Trump administration, but USCIS itself faces deeper problems that resist a quick fix. That includes massive budget shortfalls, pushed along by more spending on enforcement at a time when COVID-19 was driving down business for the agency, which is almost entirely funded by fees.

This year alone, USCIS has cut its services to avoid threatened furloughs and raised fees for citizenship applications.

“It’s not only that they (Biden administration officials) will have hundreds of immigration policy changes that they have to address and grapple with,” Capps said. “It’s also that they’re going to have to deal with rebuilding an agency that’s been falling apart.”