Xenophobia, Not Civics, Is the Reason for Trump’s New Citizenship Test

The already difficult U.S. citizenship test is now even harder and will take twice as long to complete. The Trump administration announced a new citizenship test with just 18 days’ notice, forcing people that have been diligently studying for the citizenship test to either find the necessary time and money to apply for citizenship before December, or start over. 

In its official press release, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services provided no substantive rationale or legal justification for the new citizenship test beyond providing would-be citizens with more opportunities to “learn about the United States.” 

Given what we know about the new citizenship test, as well as Americans’ declining knowledge of basic U.S. history and civics, that explanation defies belief. Instead, the intended purpose of the new citizenship test is both painfully obvious and infuriating. As the clock winds down on Donald Trump’s presidency, this administration is once again flexing its flagrantly xenophobic and racist ideological approach to immigration policy to make the naturalization process more difficult, costly and exclusionary.

USCIS’ existing citizenship test was introduced in 2008 during the administration of Republican President George W. Bush. It includes 100 questions covering U.S. history, civics and geography, and requires test-takers to demonstrate a basic level of English-language fluency. 

This test is challenging for people that came to this country as adults and those who’ve lived here for a while. Given the decades of chronic underinvestment in history and civics education, even some immigrants who completed their K-12 and college education in the United States would struggle to pass this test. 

Even though a historic 36 percent of adults now have bachelor’s degrees, polling from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that just 26 percent of Americans could name all three branches of the U.S. federal government in 2016. Last year, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation found that only 40 percent of Americans possess enough knowledge of U.S. history to pass the citizenship test.

With 128 questions, the new citizenship test is nearly 30 percent longer and conceptually more difficult than its predecessor. Many of the test’s easier-to-answer questions about subjects like U.S. geography have been removed, while new questions on more abstract concepts such as the purpose of obscure constitutional amendments and the meaning of the Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum have been added. These questions increase the level of English language proficiency and educational attainment needed to understand the test’s core concepts.

Additionally, a number of previously correct answers have been arbitrarily rephrased, and test-takers must now provide longer answers for the same questions. This means that a person could fail their citizenship test in part by providing answers that would have been correct for all tests administered before Dec. 1 of this year. 

These changes are solutions to problems that simply don’t exist. While USCIS claims to have consulted experts in adult education for its new test, the names and qualifications of these experts were not released, and their recommendations have never been made public. And, since the Trump administration did not go through an official rulemaking process, USCIS never described its reasoning for making these changes.  

Unfortunately, this is par for the course for the Trump administration. In July, the Migration Policy Institute released a report on the administration’s approach to naturalization processing using survey data from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and its more than 200 partners in the New Americans Campaign, which has helped nearly 500,000 people across the country apply to become naturalized citizens. The report shows that under President Trump, naturalization interviews have often doubled in length, frivolous documentation requests have skyrocketed and wait times in many parts of the country are at record highs. 

As a result, we now have a massive naturalization backlog of more than 700,000 people. The latest iteration of the citizenship test will only exacerbate the backlog, with interviews taking significantly longer to complete will result in longer delays and fewer interviews. 

In October, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Boundless Immigration released a report showing the Trump administration politicized the naturalization process in the runup to November’s elections to prevent as many as 300,000 people from becoming citizens in time to vote. This is alarming, as the administration’s decision to treat would-be citizens as political adversaries paves the way for even more extreme measures by future administrations.

Naturalized citizens are valuable members of our democracy, and future administrations should look to restore fairness and impartiality to naturalization policy by rolling back the Trump administration’s xenophobic changes, including the citizenship test.

Eric Cohen is executive director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.


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