Jul 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Biden-era revisions to citizenship test stir new fears

Maria Elena Sanchez takes a practice U.S. citizenship test at el Comite in Longmont, Colorado.

Maria Elena Sanchez takes a practice U.S. citizenship test at el Comite in Longmont, Colorado. Photo: Matt Jonas/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

The Biden administration's proposal to change the English proficiency section of the U.S. citizenship test is drawing backlash from some immigration advocates.

Why it matters: A more stringent English-language portion could discourage some immigrants from seeking naturalization or spark confusion in a months-long process already facing backlogs.

Details: The Biden administration announced late last year it would consider an update to the exam following a trial testing of a redesigned naturalization test.

  • Under the proposed changes, applicants would undergo a speaking section to test their English skills. An agent would show photos of daily activities and ask the applicant to describe them verbally.
  • Currently, agents measure speaking ability in the citizenship interview by asking applicants personal questions already answered in the naturalization paperwork.
  • The potential update would also include a multiple-choice civics section on U.S. history and government to replace the current oral short-answer style.

How we got here: As soon as President Biden took office, his administration scrapped former President Trump's revised naturalization civics test that critics called cumbersome and unnecessary.

  • The Biden administration reverted back to the 2008 exam version, but U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials said an update was still needed after 15 years.
  • "USCIS expects the Naturalization Test Redesign Initiative to take approximately two years and be ready for implementation by late 2024," the agency said in a notice to the Federal Register.

What they're saying: "We should not create additional barriers to naturalization when there are already so many," Jennifer Anzardo Valdes, deputy director at Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, tells Axios.

  • Anzardo Valdes said the test now is notoriously lengthy and challenging, and the cost of naturalization is out of reach for many aspiring applicants.
  • There is a connection between English language proficiency and naturalization rates for U.S. immigrant populations, Helena Coric, the National Immigration Forum's assistant vice president of Business Engagement & Inclusion Programs, tells Axios.
  • Immigrants with low English proficiency rarely apply for citizenship, Coric said. "We urge USCIS to have an implementation plan that allows vulnerable populations an option to take the current version of the test by request."

Jessica Chicco, director of the New Americans Initiative at the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition, she's concerned about the new civics part.

  • "Though multiple choice might sound easier to many people, it does mean that it's going from an oral test to essentially a reading test."

Yes, but: Some groups helping applicants apply for naturalization are already preparing for the changes.

  • Wadi Gaitán, a spokesperson for the Koch-network's LIBRE Institute, said they're ready to tailor their English and U.S. Citizenship workshops "to make sure Latino immigrants are prepared and empowered."

The intrigue: A survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in 2019 found that most Americans in every state except Vermont would fail the current U.S. citizenship test.

  • Only four out of 10 Americans would have passed the test about basic U.S. civics, and just 27% of those under age 45. Fewer than a third could correctly name three of the original states.

Flashback: In the early 20th century, U.S. officials would subject migrants at Ellis Island to all sorts of physical and mental exams.

  • Examiners, for example, administered a test involving a wooden 10-piece puzzle called the Feature Profile Test. According to the Smithsonian, officials said the exam would help keep out "feeble-minded" immigrants.
  • The puzzle test was used until 1916.

What's next: The Biden administration is finishing a trial of the exam, but advocates and members of Congress are expected to pose more questions.

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