Biden Administration Scraps Longer, More Difficult Trump-Era Citizenship Test

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Mirabel Bermudez, 44 and Jacqueline Castillo, 32, study for the citizenship test at Fair Oaks Community Center in Redwood City, California, on March 22, 2018. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

This post was originally published on Dec. 1, 2020. It was updated Feb. 22, 2021 at 1 p.m.

The Biden administration is discarding a Trump-era civics test that immigrants must pass to become American citizens, claiming the test, which was launched in December 2020, could create unnecessary barriers to naturalization.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Monday it is reverting to a 2008 version of the civics test, which the agency said was thoroughly developed during a multiyear period and piloted before its implementation. The reversal is part of a broad review of the naturalization process announced by President Biden last month “to eliminate barriers and make the process more accessible to all eligible individuals,” according to a statement by the agency.

Immigrant advocates had criticized the 2020 version of the exam, which was longer and potentially more difficult, as a last-ditch effort in the waning weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency to prevent immigrants from gaining the benefits of U.S. citizenship, including the ability to vote.

“President Trump’s citizenship test was the product of bigotry and xenophobia, not civics, or a desire to improve the naturalization process,” Melissa Rodgers, who directs programs for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco, said in a statement. “We applaud USCIS and the Biden administration for taking this critical step.”

Immigrants who filed their application for citizenship between Dec. 1, 2020 and March 1, 2021 will have the option to take either the 2020 civics test or the 2008 version. USCIS said the 2020 test will be phased out on April 19, 2021.

Original post from Dec. 1, 2020

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Starting today, new applicants to become U.S. citizens will be required to pass a revised civics test that is longer and potentially more difficult than the previous version that had been in place for more than a decade.

The 2020 version of the civics test could impact an estimated 2.2 million green card holders in California who are eligible to naturalize, the most of any state.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that processes naturalization applications, doubled the length of the oral exam. USCIS officers will now ask citizenship candidates 20 out of 128 possible questions. Applicants must answer 12 questions correctly in order to pass.

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In the previous version of the test, candidates were asked up to 10 out of 100 questions. Immigrants who filed their applications before Dec. 1 will continue to take that version.

The agency said it revised the test to better assess an applicant’s required understanding of U.S. history and civics, and prepare them to participate in American democracy. The exam was last updated in 2008.

“U.S. citizenship is the most significant immigration benefit our country offers,” said Sharon Rummery, a USCIS spokeswoman. “Preparing for the naturalization test helps aspiring citizens fully understand the meaning and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship. This allows them to become successful, assimilated citizens who share the fundamental values that unite all Americans.”

But immigrant advocates denounced the revision as a last-ditch effort by the outgoing Trump administration to hinder immigrants’ ability to gain the benefits of American citizenship, including the right to vote in local, state and federal elections.

“We think that it's a way to discourage people from applying for citizenship,” said Bethzy Garcia, who coordinates naturalization assistance at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles (CHIRLA). "It’s a way to intimidate people. As it is, many of our applicants feel very anxious about going to the test.”

Garcia said CHIRLA helps more than 1,000 people per year with the naturalization process, many of whom are older immigrants who may have limited English skills or trouble memorizing answers.

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In addition to understanding U.S. civics fundamentals, candidates for citizenship must be adults who can read and write basic English, and show good moral character, among other requirements.

By law, USCIS will continue to provide special consideration for applicants who are 65 or older and who have been U.S. lawful permanent residents for at least 20 years. These applicants may study just 20 questions and take the test in the language of their choice.

Nearly 9 million immigrants are eligible to apply for naturalization, according to estimates by the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. But many decline to take that step, citing a lack of English skills and the price tag of the U.S. citizenship application, which is currently $725.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration tried to dramatically increase the fee to apply for citizenship to up to $1,170, as well as hike the cost of work permits and other immigration benefits. But a federal court in San Francisco blocked the fee increases just days before they were set to go into effect on Oct. 2.

Still, applying for citizenship has become more burdensome under President Trump, with USCIS officials requiring more documentation from applicants, such as up to 10 years of travel history instead of five, said Diego Iñiguez-López, policy and campaigns manager with the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of immigrant rights organizations.

The new civics test is another Trump administration policy aiming to prevent immigrants from obtaining U.S. citizenship, he said.

“It's very consistent with hundreds of anti-immigrant measures that we've seen under consideration,” Iñiguez-López said. “And it's part of a larger attempt to exclude immigrants from the concepts of democracy and political representation.”

USCIS said it worked in close coordination with community-based organizations and adult educators throughout the revision process. But Iñiguez-López said there was “minimal effort” by the administration to get input from nonprofits and naturalization experts.

He and other advocates criticized the phrasing and answers to some questions, including one that asks who a U.S. senator represents. In the previous test, the correct answer was “all people in a state.” Now, applicants must answer “citizens of their state.”

“With that question, one, it’s incorrect, and two, it shows the anti-immigrant bias of the Trump administration in the form of the civics test,” Iñiguez-López said. “Senators represent all of the persons in their state.”

He and other advocates are asking President-elect Joe Biden to restore the previous test. They also want the Biden administration to take steps to expand access to naturalization by canceling the proposed fee increases and streamlining the citizenship application process to reduce the backlog of more than 740,000 pending requests.