Civics minded: Local groups help citizenship applicants prepare for tougher test

Literacy Volunteers’ Catherine McCall says the Trump administration’s new, more difficult citizenship test requires a higher level of English proficiency. Photo: Zack Wajsgras Literacy Volunteers’ Catherine McCall says the Trump administration’s new, more difficult citizenship test requires a higher level of English proficiency. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

U.S. immigrants have faced an amazing array of challenges during the last four years, but as of December 1, 2020, the outgoing administration left them one last present: a significantly more difficult citizenship exam. The exam, something immigrants must pass in order to become citizens, has an English language and civics portion, and the civics element has recently been expanded and revised in a way that immigration advocates say is unfair.

Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville/Richmond office, which assists refugees and other immigrants with the citizenship application process, is blunt: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services “made changes [to the citizenship exam] without input from stakeholders, and without justification for making it harder,” she says.

Applicants now must answer 20 questions instead of 10, and while the passing score is still 60 percent (12 correct out of 20, instead of six out of 10), applicants will have to answer all 20 questions instead of passing as soon as they have given 12 correct answers. The new test also covers much more material. The number of civics study questions has increased from 100 to 128. There are more questions about the government (up from 57 to 72), and more about the Founders and America’s wars. Applicants must now correctly name five (rather than three) of the original 13 states, and all three (rather than one) of the branches of government.

“Many of these new questions require a higher proficiency in English,” says Catherine McCall, citizenship coordinator with Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville-Albemarle, which offers preparation classes and individual tutoring for those applying for citizenship. Additionally, some of the new questions seem ideologically motivated, say advocates. For example, the correct answer to a question about who members of Congress represent is now “citizens” (rather than “all the people”) of their state or district, a distinction that aligns with the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude non-citizens from the national census.

The revision process itself has been cause for concern, too. The previous exam, which went into effect in October 2008, took six years to review and revise, including extensive input from educators and immigration organizations, test piloting, and public comment. This time, the entire process took 18 months, and outside review and piloting efforts were minimal. Especially problematic: The new exam took effect less than three weeks after the finalized version was released, “leaving very little time for public comment or outreach to potential applicants,” notes Kuhr.

Given the rushed timeline, LVCA, Sin Barreras, and other local nonprofit organizations offering exam preparation for applicants have scrambled to make extensive revisions to their classes—already upended by the pandemic—when offices were closed for months and all interactions had to move online.

In July, LVCA was able to start offering Zoom citizenship classes (one in civics, one on the English-skills portion of the exam). Enrollment has been increasing, according to McCall—the July-August session had 25 students; the November-December session had 43 students, requiring two sections of each class; and for the upcoming cycle starting January 15, she’s already planning on three sections. To make things harder, LVCA now has to offer preparation for both versions of the civics test, since those who applied by December 1 are still taking the old exam. IRC’s Kuhr says her organization, which usually assists on about 125 citizenship applications annually, urged clients to get their applications filed before the changeover.

Complicating matters, the backlog on processing applications was severe even pre-pandemic. Applicants from our area, whose tests are administered by USCIS’ Washington, D.C., office, now face a waiting period of 11.5 to 15 months before taking their exam, according to the agency’s website. Kuhr says under the former administration, the waiting period was more like three to six months. (For context, the Atlanta office’s current wait time is 12 to 32 months.)

Last year USCIS attempted to increase the citizenship application fee from $640 to $1,170 to decrease the availability of income-based fee waivers or reductions, though the changes were challenged in court by immigration advocacy groups and have not yet gone into effect.

Immigrant advocates are hoping these changes will be rolled back by the incoming administration. But in the meantime, those seeking to become U.S. citizens are faced with doing a whole lot more studying.

“I’m on board with revising the citizenship test to better prepare people to become Americans,” says McCall, who is also a high school civics educator. “But this new test is not going to make them more effective citizens.”

Could you pass?

The following are among the new questions on the citizenship exam.

1. What is the purpose of the 10th Amendment?

2. Who appoints federal judges?

3. Name one leader of the women’s rights movement in the 1800s.

Answers:

1. The powers not given to the federal government belong to the states or to the people.

2. The president

3. Examples: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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