Trump administration planning changes to US citizenship test

If you were to take the test to become a U.S. citizen tomorrow, you might be asked to name one of five U.S. territories, or two of the rights contained in the Declaration of Independence, or to provide the correct number of amendments to the Constitution.

A woman holds a cluster of U.S. flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony in Oakland, California August 13, 2013. A total of 1,225 new citizens representing 96 countries took the oath. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The naturalization test is a crucial part of an immigrant’s journey to becoming an American. And, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it is meant not just as a measure of U.S. civics knowledge, but also as a reason to study and absorb the principles, values and functions of the U.S. government, including the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship.

(Question No. 49: What is one responsibility that is only for United States’ citizens? Answer: “serve on a jury” or “vote in a federal election.”)

The Trump administration is planning to update the test, with a new version slated to debut before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term, officials said Friday. A pilot test should be available this fall.

USCIS officials are offering few details about the changes to the test, which was last revised in 2008. Officers who administer the exam now choose as many as 10 questions to ask each applicant from a list of 100 in three categories: American Government, American History and Integrated Civics (geography, symbols and holidays.) The questions are not intended to trip up applicants – they are published and available for all to study.

With the executive branch able to control the test, and with President Trump making it clear that he wants to dramatically change the nation’s immigration policies and laws, how the White House approaches new questions or the test’s format could become an object of scrutiny.

“Isn’t everybody always paranoid that this is used for ulterior purposes?” USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner and former Virginia Attorney General who Trump appointed last month, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday. “Of course they’re going to be sorely disappointed when it just looks like another version of a civics exam. I mean that’s pretty much how it’s going to look.”

In the first 2 1/2 years of his presidency, Trump has slashed the number of refugees admitted to the United States; banned thousands of would-be immigrants based on their nationality in a handful of majority-Muslim countries; made it more difficult to qualify for asylum; and proposed a visa system overhaul that would prioritize immigrants with advanced degrees, English-language skills and deep pockets.

In a series of tweets this week, Trump also sought to draw a line between the kinds of rights enjoyed by existing U.S. citizens, distinguishing between four minority Democratic Congresswomen, whom, he claimed, “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” and “the people of the United States.” Many critics have said the president was suggesting that the former had little or no right to criticize the latter.

(Question No. 51: What are two rights of everyone living in the United States? Answer: freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition the government, freedom of religion, or the right to bear arms.)

Readers of Trump’s tweets have also pointed out that only one of the four Congresswomen he was tweeting about is foreign-born, and that, like all members of Congress, they are U.S. citizens. (Question No. 50: Name one right only for United States citizens. Answers: “vote in a federal election” or “run for federal office.”)

USCIS officials described the forthcoming test revision as a benign act; a rewording or reshuffling or reconsideration of some questions in alignment with adult education standards and best practices, which, they said, mandate regular updates to standardized tests.

“I just think we need to freshen the material,” Cuccinelli said. “Even if all we do is go pull questions from 2000 and questions from 2008.”

Hundreds of thousands of people become naturalized U.S. citizens every year. Last year, USCIS naturalized more than 750,000 people, a five-year high. Immigration attorneys have said there is an increasingly long application processing time, and there is a record backlog that has grown dramatically since 2016. A foreign national has to be a legal permanent resident of the United States for at least five years before applying for citizenship.

The questions are developed in consultation with middle school and high school curriculums across all 50 states, according to USCIS. An applicant must get at least six out of 10 correct to pass. The average pass rate on the naturalization test is 90 percent, according to USCIS data.

Not all the questions are easy.

Cuccinelli said that he often encounters applicants for citizenship who are better versed in U.S. civics than natural-born U.S. citizens.

“I can’t tell you how many spouses seeking to become citizens know more about that answer than their spouse,” he said, referring to Question No. 20: Who is one of your state’s U.S. Senators now?

He said his staff also has been “joking about the ones that currently exist – and whether we know them all.”

A survey last year by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that of 1,000 U.S. citizens questioned, just 1 in 3 would pass the naturalization test. Khizr Khan – the Gold Star father who Trump attacked during the 2016 campaign – publicly challenged Trump to take the test.

Question No. 91 asks applicants to name one U.S. territory; Trump has referred to the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands – one of the correct answers – as the “president” of the Caribbean territory, and he has complained that Puerto Rico – another correct answer – has gotten too much aid “from USA.” Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, has twice referred to Puerto Rico as “that country.” (The three other correct answers would be American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.)

Introduced in 1986, the test was last revised in 2008; a shift that officials said removed a lot of the trivia – such as an excessive number of questions surrounding the appearance of the American flag – and incorporated questions meant to foster a better understanding of the U.S. system of government and how the country came to be.

Cuccinelli said there isn’t anything in the existing naturalization test that strikes him as out of place in the way the previous test did. That version, he remembers, included a question about the United Nations, which he found preposterous because it “has absolutely nothing to do with United States of America,” and having such a question in there is “just not right.”

“Who gives a flying rat’s ass?” that the U.N. is located in the United States, he added. “So is the Russian Embassy. We don’t ask about Russia.”

But nothing stands out as inherently wrong with the existing test, he said.

“Really – and you see it in a lot of the questions that are already there – I want to see it reflecting American principles, constitutional principles, that are unique that help make us exceptional, and are frankly part of the reason people want to come here,” Cuccinelli said.

The first pilot test is expected to involve approximately 1,400 volunteers around the country. A second pilot is expected to be field tested in the spring.

A lot of the questions – such as “What is the economic system in the United States?” and “What was one important thing that Abraham Lincoln did – most likely will stay the same, officials said.

Two new questions that USCIS officials said are on the drafting table – but could be abandoned – include: Why did the U.S. enter World War II? (Answer: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.) And: Who do we celebrate on Veterans Day? (Answer: people in the military, or people who have served in the armed forces).

Some people have contacted the citizenship office with their own suggestions, requesting more questions about inventors or scientists; a question about the national parks; and maybe something about Mount Rushmore.

“Nobody has suggested anything specific to me,” Cuccinelli said.

The president, he said, has not weighed in.

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