The New Citizen Naturalization Test

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The oral exam that immigrants to the U.S. must complete to receive their citizenship just got more complicated.

On Friday, November 13, officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) revealed plans to implement the revised version of what is known as the naturalization civics test. The oral test is one of the statutory requirements for naturalizing any applicant who applies for U.S. citizenship. As USCIS Deputy Director for Policy Joseph Edlow explained: “Naturalization allows immigrants to become fully vested members of American society, with the same rights and responsibilities as citizens by birth, and offering a fair test, which prepares naturalization applicants for these responsibilities, is of upmost importance to our agency.”

The revision is part of a regular 10-year review, with the new test replacing one that was last revised 12 years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush.

What Do the Revisions Mean?

What do the revisions mean? More questions that test the applicant’s understanding of U.S. history and civics, as well as questions that cover a variety of topics and more opportunities to learn about the United States as part of the test preparation process. The revised test will not impact the passing score, which remains at 60 percent, or 12 of the 20 questions an applicant must complete. And whereas applicant questioning would stop when an applicant reached the 60 percent threshold, all applicants will be asked all 20 questions in every case under the new testing rules.

Applicants who are 65 years old or older and have at least 20 years of lawful permanent resident status receive a “special consideration” test of 10 questions. Special consideration applicants must answer a minimum of 6 questions correctly to pass.

Geography is being completely removed from the new test, meaning that applicants will no longer have to answer such questions as “What ocean is on the West Coast of the United States?” (the Pacific) or “What is the capital of the United States?” (Washington, DC).

While geography drops off the map, the study guide that applicants use to prepare for the test increases in size by 28 percent, growing from 100 to 128 potential questions that might appear on the test. Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, is worried about the cost of this change to “an already struggling agency.” She predicts that this change could possibly triple the amount each USCIS officer spends testing applicants, “adding hundreds of thousands of more minutes to these naturalization exams.”

Mixed Reviews

Although many of the basic test questions remain the same, some reviewers have noted that the wording has become more specific and complicated in the revised versions. Where the previous test asked, “What are the two rights in the Declaration of Independence,” for example, the new version asks, “Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.”

Other questions have become even more specific. A question that previously asked applicants to identify one branch of the U.S. government now asks applicants to name all three branches. The correct answer: the executive branch (or the President), the legislative branch (Congress), and the judicial branch (federal courts).

Other adjustments have proven more controversial. When asked “Who does a U.S. senator represent?” the correct answer must now include the words “citizen” or “citizens” (as in “citizens of their state”), for example. The previous test allowed for the word “people” to be deemed correct (as in “all people of their state”). Some critics claim that this new emphasis on citizenship reflects politicization of the test, given that President Trump has long argued that the U.S. Census Bureau include a question about citizenship status.

Immigration advocates fear that the changes will add another layer of complexity to an already time-consuming and arduous process. And with the number of immigrants applying for citizenship continuing to grow year over year, advocates worry, too, about the impact on wait times. As Associated Press notes:

In recent years, the average wait time for an applicant to naturalize has also grown. It was nearly 10 months in the 2019 fiscal year compared with fewer than six months three years prior. The government lists estimated naturalization processing times on its website of between 14.5 and 26 months in Houston and 16.5 and 32 months in New York.

In July, the USCIS increased the cost of online naturalization applications from $640 to $1,160 and added a first-time fee of $50 for asylum seekers, joining Australia, Iran, and Fiji as the only countries with asylum fees.

When Does the New Test Come into Play?

The revised test will be used starting on December 1, 2020. Individuals who apply before that date will take the current version of the test. Test items and study guides are available at the Citizenship Resource Center.

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