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EDITORIAL

Make becoming an American citizen great again

The new citizenship test is needlessly onerous, and the Biden administration should restore the previous one.

In this June 26, 2020, file photo, U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson, left, administers the oath of citizenship to Hala Baqtar during a drive-thru naturalization service in a parking structure at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters on Detroit's east side.
In this June 26, 2020, file photo, U.S. District Judge Laurie Michelson, left, administers the oath of citizenship to Hala Baqtar during a drive-thru naturalization service in a parking structure at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services headquarters on Detroit's east side.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

It’s been said many times that most American-born citizens would fail the US history and civics test that immigrants must pass to become naturalized citizens. Quick: How many amendments does the Constitution have? And can you name one author of the Federalist Papers?

The answer to the first question, if it didn’t readily come to mind, is 27. And the authors of the Federalist Papers are James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and Publius.

The citizenship test is perfectly rigorous. But the Trump administration recently introduced a new exam, making it longer and unnecessarily increasing the difficulty of the questions. More alarming, it injected politics into the questions and answers.

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The move is part of a concerted, mean-spirited, and short-sighted effort by the Trump administration to curb immigration. The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden must reverse these changes to the test, which take effect Dec. 1, and work more broadly to streamline the US citizenship process.

To become naturalized citizens, eligible immigrants must pay a fee, pass a history and civics test, and demonstrate basic English-language skills, according to federal law. The current version of the test has been in place since 2008 and requires applicants to answer six out of 10 questions correctly in an interview with an officer from US Citizenship and Immigration Services, when they also undergo a separate English-language evaluation. For the exam, applicants are given a guide of 100 questions to study.

But the new test increases the pool of potential questions to 128 and requires prospective citizens to answer 12 out of 20. Inexplicably, it also requires the USCIS officer to ask all 20 questions in every interview, regardless of whether the applicant has gotten 12 answers correct or not.

“The shift to more questions and procedures,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, “will slow down the naturalization process and lead to an increased backlog of applications.” The backlog is long enough already. According to USCIS, the average time for processing citizenship applications in fiscal year 2020 was nine months, while the average wait was over five months in 2016.

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Additionally, the new test includes politically motivated changes. For instance, one question the test has asked for years is: Who does a US senator represent? The answer, until now, has been pretty straightforward — all people of the state. But the new answer is: citizens of their state. That’s a clear extension of the Trump administration’s wide-ranging effort to marginalize and exclude noncitizens.

Biden’s incoming administration should rescind these changes. “The current test has been fair and meaningful,” said Eva Millona, president of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The civics test and the English-language evaluation have a combined national pass rate of 91 percent.

Additionally, Biden should maintain the current cost of naturalization. Trump officials had tried to nearly double the $640 fee to $1,160, but the increase was blocked by a federal judge in California earlier this fall.

While reverting to pre-Trump practices makes sense in many instances, some changes are in order.

“We have all been doing things on Zoom during the pandemic,” said Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum. “Let’s have virtual oath ceremonies so that last hurdle can be cleared much more easily.” Earlier this year, many legal experts and members of Congress called for USCIS to swear in new Americans remotely, a measure that was never implemented. The agency did have limited drive-through naturalization ceremonies after it had to suspend large ceremonies temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Biden is sending the right signals on immigration. He says he intends to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas, an immigrant from Cuba, as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS. Mayorkas understands the value of immigrants. But starting in January, it will fall to the president and his nominee to do the work to deliver on the smartest and fairest policy — starting with the basic test that ushers in new citizens.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.