Trump Administration Revised U.S. Citizenship Test Criticized

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

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It’s no secret that President Trump’s approach to immigration is one of the toughest of any U.S. President. During his term, he made over 400 policy changes, that have blocked many of the paths to immigration in this country. Other policies have made the lives of those attempting to become citizens more difficult. For example, separating families, dismantling the asylum system in an effort to limit or prevent asylum seekers, and requiring individuals to request asylum in Mexico or Guatemala and to remain there until their cases are decided, resulting in over 250,000 people living in tent cities without many basic necessities, to name just a few.

Throughout his time in office, Trump’s administration has attempted to increase the amount it would cost to become a citizen, making it impossible for some to follow through. In November 2019 he wanted to raise the cost of citizenship applications by 83 percent. In July of 2020, he attempted to double the rates and impose a fee on asylum seekers who were fleeing oppression, violence, and persecution, while in August he tried to raise the cost to apply by over 80 percent and make the criteria for eligibility much stricter to rule out more people. He has attempted to increase fees for dozens of application-related factors.

In October 2020 these efforts were struck down by the District Court for Northern California. Despite this, increases in a number of immigration application fees went into effect on October 16th. The administration has also made it harder to get H-1B visas for temporary employment of highly-skilled individuals, and suspended the work visa program allegedly due to the pandemic.

As if there weren’t enough hoops for immigrants with hopes of becoming American citizens to jump through, they will now have to pass a harder citizenship test. Those who apply to become citizens after December 1, 2020, will have to take a test that is twice as long as it was before and which includes 28 more civics areas to learn.

Those currently applying for citizenship will have to study 128 areas as opposed to 100, and they will be asked about 20 of these areas during their interview, instead of 10. They must answer 12 correctly to pass, or 60 percent, which is the same passing rate as before. In another change, officers will ask respondents all 20 questions instead of stopping once they have answered the required number correctly, as has been the policy in the past.

The English portion of the exam has not changed percent and applicants will still have to demonstrate they are able to read, write, and speak basic English.

Immigrant advocates and counselors are upset over this move, saying it just puts extra stumbling blocks in the way of individuals who want to become legal citizens. Critics also point out that it will significantly slow down the rate that tests can be administered, further decreasing the number of people who can become U.S. citizens. Some also point out the irony that immigrants must be able to pass a difficult exam while only 1 in 3 Americans can pass the easier version of the test.

The new test has been primarily criticized based on the perception that it is harder and more subtle than the older version and that it includes language suggesting political leanings. For example, one of the questions on the exam asks, “Who does a U.S. senator represent?” On the old test, the correct answer provided was, “All the people of the state.” However, on the recent version, the correct answer given is, “All the citizens of their state.” Anyone who fails to state it is only the citizens of the state, which doesn’t include undocumented or legal immigrants who are not yet naturalized, will have the answer marked wrong.

This change is believed to be related to the fact that President Trump has tried several times to prevent undocumented immigrants from being counted in the 2020 census so as not to have them considered for the purposes of redrawing congressional districts. This despite the Constitution clearly states that “all persons” should be counted. The case continues to be considered by the Supreme Court with arguments being heard on November 30th.

The wording of the questions is also more difficult in places with more comprehensive answers required. For example, on the old exam respondents were asked, "What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?" An acceptable answer could simply be the well-known phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

On the new test, the item is worded, “Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution." For the answer to be scored as correct on the new test, however, the respondent must include more specific terms such as "equality," "social contract," "natural rights," "limited government," and "self-government."

Many wonder about the timing of the move, saying that while it had been discussed as a possibility, it was only announced as a fait accompli for the first time on November 13th with the changes going into effect two weeks later. That is a lot of pressure to put on those who are scheduled to take their exam in the next few weeks. Anyone who fails their test has the option to take it again, several months down the road but should they fail it a second time their application is permanently denied.

While U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated that they revised the test as a regularly scheduled update which occurs every 10 years, many argue that the test is not just harder in terms of the questions asked, but that it is much longer and includes policy changes that make it more stressful. According to a number of sources, these changes to the citizenship exam are just one more way the Trump administration is attempting to push through last-minute policies intended to limit immigration to the United States.

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Chicago, IL
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