The U.S. Citizenship Test Just Got Harder. Would You Pass?
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Is there a better, more appropriate way to end 2020 than by making the U.S. naturalization test just a little more punishing?
That's what the Trump Administration did last month, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced it was revising the civics portion of the test to add 28 more potential questions -- questions that are slightly more subjective, and therefore more difficult to answer, than before.
Those questions went into effect Tuesday, Dec. 1.
Here's how it works: Applicants are given a list of 128 potential questions in advance. When they sit down for the test, a USCIS officer will ask them 20 questions from that list. The whole process is verbal -- no multiple choice, no writing down your answers. You need to get 12 answers right to pass.
How is that different than before? The old version of the test had 100 potential questions -- meaning 28 fewer flashcards to study. The officer would ask 10 questions and you'd have to get six right to pass.
"The new test increases the number of questions that applicants must study from 100 to 128, it doubles the number of questions they must answer correctly to pass the test, and it requires a much higher level of English language fluency to pass," said Rosalind Gold, Chief Public Policy Officer for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, an L.A.-based non-profit that works on immigration and naturalization issues.
The questions are also more slightly more subjective than before. It's subtle, but makes a difference. For example, one of the new questions is:
Supreme Court Justices serve for life. Why?
This isn't an simple question with one correct answer such as What year was American founded? or How long is a Congressional term?
It's a lot more subjective than that.
First of all, this isn't something every American inherently knows. Most of us are aware that Supreme Court Justices don't have term limits, but we might have just thought, Well, that's the law, right? Wrong. Nowhere in the Constitution are term limits actually specified. (Article III says that judges of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts "shall hold their offices during good behavior.") Speaking of vague ...
To make the question more complicated, there's been healthy political debate about this issue for years. Some believe life terms really do help shield Supreme Court Justices from political influence. Others think there should be term limits on justices. You could write a book on this question, but here's the answer the citizenship test is looking for: To be independent (of politics) or to limit outside (political) influence.
If the person taking the test answers slightly differently, it's up the USCIS officer to decide whether or not their answer meets the criteria for correctness.
See what we mean by subjectivity? How would you answer this question? Now imagine that English isn't your first language, and try again.
"Under the federal law governing citizenship, people are only required to know enough English to use words in ordinary usage ... or to know basic English," Gold explained. "So by complicating the language in the questions, by introducing vague concepts, and by not permitting applicants to provide a concrete answer, the new test creates an unfair and unnecessary obstacle for the nearly nine million legal permanent residents who are eligible for U.S. citizenship."
As if all this isn't difficult enough, one of the answers to an old question has been changed to be ... WRONG.
Here's the question:
Who does a U.S. Senator represent?
If you're thinking the answer is "the people in their state" or "all of the people in their state," you'd be right ... on the previous version of the test.
If you gave that answer today, you'd get the question wrong (!!).
That's because the Trump Administration changed the correct answer to "citizens of their state," which, Gold from NALEO says, is factually incorrect.
"Senators represent everyone in the state, not just citizens," she told LAist. "The concept of representation does not just exist to say that lawmakers only represent the people who have the right to vote. Otherwise, you'd say that the lawmakers could ignore what is in the best interests of children, or immigrants who are in the nation legally."
The new version of the test also added this question: Who does a member of the House of Representatives represent? The answer provided also specifies citizenship: Citizens in their (congressional) district.
However, the U.S. Census specifically counts all residents of a state to determine representation in Congress -- again, not just U.S. citizens.
The Trump Administration is currently pushing a plan to exclude immigrants without legal status from the census count that determines how many seats each state gets in Congress. It's under consideration by the Supreme Court as of this week. But right now, in the reality we are living in, these elected officials represent "the people" in their congressional district, not just "the citizens."
Gold said that while we don't have evidence that the new language used in both these questions was intentionally meant to leave out non-citizen immigrants, "the changes do reflect a deeply flawed understanding of our nation's democratic processes."
Here's another example. The old test had this question:
The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?
The answer to the above question is very straightforward. There's only one correct response: "We the People."
Now the question has been changed to this:
The U.S. Constitution starts with the words "We the People." What does "We the People" mean?
See the difference? It's a lot harder because it's basically an essay question in disguise. You could do a dissertation on this.
Here are some of the answers that USCIS will be looking for:
Consent of the governed
People should govern themselves (Example of) social contract
See what we mean by "more difficult" now?
Here are some more of the new/revised questions.
Ready to test yourself? (Answer key below).
1. What is the form of government of the United States?
2. Name one thing the U.S. Constitution does.
3. Why does each state have two senators?
4. Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
5. Many documents influenced the U.S. Constitution. Name one.
6. Name one power of the U.S. Congress.
7. Why do U.S. representatives serve shorter terms than U.S. Senators?
8. The President of the United States can serve only two terms. Why?
9. The executive branch has many parts. Name one.
10. Why is the Electoral College important?
1. Republic, Constitution-based federal republic, Representative democracy
(If you just answered "Democracy" and this was a real test, it would be up to the USCIS to determine if you are right or wrong. FUN!)
2. Forms the government, Defines powers of government, Defines the parts of government, Protects the rights of the people
3. Equal representation (for small states), The Great Compromise (Connecticut Compromise)
4. Equality, Liberty, Social contract, Natural rights, Limited government, Self-government
5. Declaration of Independence Articles of Confederation, Federalist Papers, Anti-Federalist Papers, Virginia Declaration of Rights, Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, Mayflower Compact, Iroquois Great Law of Peace
6. Writes laws, Declares war, Makes the federal budget
7. To more closely follow public opinion
8. (Because of) the 22nd Amendment, To keep the president from becoming too powerful
9. President (of the United States) Cabinet, Federal departments and agencies
10. It decides who is elected president. It provides a compromise between the popular election of the president and congressional selection.
We're not going to list all 128 questions, but you can find them here. And if you want to do a fun game of compare and contrast, you can find the old questions here.
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