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Trump officials unveiled new U.S. citizenship test, as advocates worried it was too long, difficult and politicized

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 6, 2021

By Maria Sacchetti Washington Post

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in the Washington Post in November when the U.S. citizenship test was updated to include more questions.

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration unveiled a new U.S. citizenship test in November, adding a broader array of history and civics themes while requiring that legal residents answer twice as many questions correctly to pass.

The new exam – which had been in development for years as part of a once-a-decade review – requires applicants to answer at least 12 oral questions correctly, up from six under the most recent exam, which had been in use since Oct. 1, 2008, late in George W. Bush’s presidency. Those taking the test must still get at least 60% of the questions correct.

Advocates for immigrants said the exam appears to them to be more difficult than previous versions, in that it is longer, more nuanced and in some questions has a tinge of politics.

One new question asks, “Who does a U.S. senator represent?” The correct answer under the old test was: “All people of the state.”

The new version lists the correct answer as “Citizens of their state.” Former President Donald Trump tried to exclude undocumented immigrants from the decennial Census for the purposes of assigning congressional seats.

The new study guide contains 128 questions in three categories – American Government, American History, and Symbols and Holidays – up from 100 in the older version. The new test also might take longer to administer: Officers must ask all 20 questions, while lawyers said they usually used to stop when an immigrant answered the required minimum of six correctly.

Joseph Edlow, the agency’s deputy director for policy, said the new test prepares immigrants “to become fully vested members of American society.”

“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,” he said in a statement. The new exam was presented to community organizations and volunteers during the summer as part of a pilot program.

Doug Rand, a former immigration policy adviser to the Obama administration who runs a firm called Boundless Immigration, tweeted that the new test is “unnecessary, unjustified, overly complex, & shamelessly ideological” and called for President Joe Biden to restore the 2008 test.

“This is an obvious attempt to throw one more obstacle in front of immigrants legally eligible for U.S. citizenship,” he said.

Officials eradicated the old test’s geography section – which included questions such as “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States? (Answer: Pacific) and added newer, more technical questions about government.

One new question asks: “What is the form of government of the United States?” (Possible answers: republic, constitution-based federal republic and representative democracy).

Another question asks applicants to name five of the 13 original states, while the older test asked them to name three.

Analysts worry administering the test will take longer, potentially limiting the number of exams officers can handle.

“It’s basic math,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “If you make the test twice as long, it takes twice as much time and USCIS officers will process half the applicants.”

USCIS spokesman Dan Hetlage said the increased number of questions “provides a more accurate measurement” of applicants’ understanding of civics and “ensures the reliability and validity of scores.”

Focusing on history and civics themes could give applicants “more questions from themes with which they are familiar, thus ensuring a better chance of passing the test,” he said.

Officials eliminated the geography questions, he said, “because they were not sufficiently tied to the statutory standard.”

Federal law requires immigrants to pass a citizenship test, along with other requirements such as paying a fee, clearing background checks, and being able to speak basic English. Officials had also tried to nearly double the $640 citizenship application fee, but a federal judge in California blocked that move in September.

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, said the Biden administration should review the new exam.

“They’re obviously trying to make it more difficult,” she said. “What end will that achieve?”

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