The Trump administration is planning to make the naturalization test, which immigrants must pass to become US citizens, longer, according to a draft memo obtained by CNN, a move that could make it more difficult and marks the latest in a string of actions intended to alter the citizenship process.
Last year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the exam, announced that it was making changes to the civics portion of the test. The agency last launched revisions of the naturalization exam in 2009, “which implemented standardized test forms for both the English and civics test requirements,” according to a May 2019 memo. The memo also said the agency was in the process of formalizing a decennial revision process.
The agency appears to be nearing the finish line for its latest slate of changes. According to the memo, revisions include adding more civics test questions and topics, as well as changing the passing score. The exam generally consists of both an English test and civics test.
Over the course of his presidency, Donald Trump has tried to curtail legal immigration and doubled down on citizenship, teasing an end to birthright citizenship and attempting to include a citizenship question on the census. Earlier this year, his administration also moved to increase the cost of online naturalization applications from $640 to $1,160.
The naturalization exam is a crucial step to an immigrant’s path toward US citizenship. The planned revisions would stand to affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who seek citizenship annually.
Currently, the exam features 100 civics questions. Hopeful American citizens are asked up to 10 of these during an interview and have to answer six correctly to pass. But the changes, according to the memo, include an increase in civics test questions from 10 to 20, and as such, changing the passing score to 12/20 instead of 6/10. The memo also says USCIS officers will ask all 20 questions, rather than stopping when an applicant reaches the passing score.
The updated test, according to the memo, “includes more questions that test applicants’ understanding of U.S. history and civics in line with the statutory standard than the current test.”
The agency says it added more topics touching on specific amendments to the Constitution, the “rationale for the legislative branch structure,” and an item on “American innovations.” It also includes more “why” questions, though it’s unclear what that entails.
It’s unclear when the agency will roll out the changes to the exam. USCIS declined to comment on the planned revisions.
“It’s not unprecedented to change the questions … what stands out to me is once again a desire to slow down the process and require more from immigrants,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, a non-profit group that advocates for the rights of immigrants, in part because it takes more to ask additional questions.
“This administration seems locked into an endless cycle of making the process more difficult and inevitably, discouraging more and more people from seeking citizenship and legal immigration benefits,” Reichlin-Melnick added.
USCIS, a part of the Department of Homeland Security, has been at the center of some of the administration’s most hardline immigration policies, notably policies that have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants to seek asylum in the US and the controversial “public charge” rule, which makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status if they use public benefits.
Ken Cuccinelli, who now serves as the senior official performing the duties of the Homeland Security deputy secretary, brought the agency into a rare spotlight when he served as the acting USCIS director, working to rebrand it as an vetting agency, rather than a benefits agency.
“Updating, maintaining, and improving a test that is current and relevant is our responsibility as an agency in order to help potential new citizens fully understand the meaning of U.S. citizenship and the values that unite all Americans,” Cuccinelli said in a statement last year when the agency announced it would revise the exam.
USCIS has boasted about the number of people it naturalizes on a yearly basis. In fiscal year 2019, USCIS naturalized 834,000 new citizens, an 11-year high. But during the pandemic, naturalization ceremonies, which occur in person, were halted.
The agency began to fully resume ceremonies in June.