Concerns are rising amongst immigrant communities and advocates over the possibility of a tougher citizenship test to be implemented by the Biden administration. The existing test, in place since 2008, was revised under the Trump administration in 2020, a move that drew criticism for its heightened difficulty level. However, in 2021, the Biden administration reverted to the earlier version.
The upcoming version of the test, expected to roll out next year, is causing ripples due to its increased focus on English language proficiency. It’s worth noting that over a million immigrants obtained U.S. citizenship in the fiscal year 2022, marking one of the highest levels since 1907.
Sara Goodman, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, maintains that the current test is still less challenging than citizenship tests in countries like Germany, Canada, and the U.K. She further elaborates that the test demands a “high beginner” level of English and provides a question bank with answers to candidates prior to taking the test.
However, the proposed test intends to add a speaking section that requires applicants to describe a picture in English. Heaven Mehreta, who migrated from Ethiopia to the U.S. a decade ago and passed the test last year, expressed concerns over this format. She’s joined by Jennifer Anzardo Valdes, deputy director at Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, who cautions against creating additional obstacles for naturalization.
Helena Coric, from the National Immigration Forum, also expressed concerns, arguing that the existing English requirement can be an impediment to potential applicants with lower language proficiency. She proposed that vulnerable populations should be granted the option to take the current version of the test.
The anticipated version of the test also plans to switch the short-answer section about U.S. history and government to a multiple-choice format. While this might appear easier, it essentially transforms the oral exam into a reading test, according to Jessica Chicco, director of the New Americans Initiative at the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
In contrast, Elizabeth Jacobs, from the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, posits that the Biden test might actually be easier than the current one due to its multiple-choice format. She believes it’s important for the test to incorporate American values like religious freedom and freedom of speech.
Interestingly, a 2018 survey by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars revealed that only 36 percent of Americans could pass a test composed of questions from the citizenship exam, which raises broader questions about civic literacy.
As we await the new test, it’s clear that a delicate balance is necessary between ensuring the linguistic and cultural assimilation of immigrants and avoiding barriers that may deter deserving candidates from obtaining citizenship.