Promoting and facilitating naturalization against the new citizenship test

Lynn Tramonte

The Bishops wrote in 2007, “Responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” Citizenship is the ultimate entry point to civic engagement in all societies.

This year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has funded 17 affiliates of Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. as part of the Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program. A total of 39 organizations in 18 states will share nearly $10 million in funding, to help lawful permanent residents prepare to become U.S. citizens. Fully 44 percent of the awardees this year are CLINIC affiliates, a record share.

CLINIC congratulates each and every affiliate that works so hard to help immigrants become new Americans.

Yet, in one of its last acts, the Trump administration's USCIS also implemented a more complex and ideological citizenship test, with the clear goal of reducing the number of people who can pass it and ultimately become Americans.

Jeff Chenoweth, section director of Capacity Building at CLINIC, called it a “narrowing of the American dream.” He explained:

This longer, more abstract and challenging test is likely to raise the denial rate and reduce the number of new citizens each year. It requires incorrect answers, such as only “citizens” get representation by elected officials in Congress. Our democracy allows all people to be represented, even non-voters. Furthermore, this test only exacerbates disparities experienced by immigrants to the U.S., giving further advantage to those with more educational opportunities compared to others, who may be just as committed to our country, but had lesser privilege.

The new test, which will be used for everyone who applies for citizenship on Dec. 1, 2020, or later, is part of a broader crackdown on citizenship by the Trump administration. From CNN:

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 … naturalization applications from $640 to $1,160.

The naturalization exam is a crucial step to an immigrant's path toward U.S. citizenship. The ... revisions would stand to affect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who seek citizenship annually.

Lynne Weintraub, MEd, an adult educator, textbook author, test developer and consultant on the 2008 naturalization test redesign, explained that the new test incorporates abstract concepts and wording that will make passage much more difficult for people who speak English as a second language or had received a less formal education.

The rationale for the test redesign, and the process itself, was opaque and highly suspect. In a forthcoming policy paper, CLINIC writes:

On July 19, 2019, USCIS publicly announced plans to revise the citizenship test that had been in place since 2008, with an implementation date of December 2020 or early 2021. The process had begun earlier in secret, when USCIS formed a naturalization test revision working group with members from across the agency in December 2018 to review the civics questions and consider changes to the English portion of the test. Despite its enormous implications for the future of citizenship, the test revision process continued in secrecy after the public announcement, with no opportunity offered for stakeholder engagement or input.

Excluded from the process were CLINIC, experts like Weintraub and the practitioners who have the most expertise about how today’s immigrants navigate the citizenship process, such as the many CLINIC affiliates who do this work on a daily basis. Meanwhile, thousands of immigrants who dreamed of becoming U.S. citizens have to face a more complicated and ideological exam designed to keep them from obtaining full participation in the country they consider home.

That is why CLINIC recommends the Biden-Harris administration do three things in its first 100 days:

  • Halt implementation of the revised citizenship test until USCIS engages in outreach and consultation with stakeholders;
  • Ensure internal guidance for USCIS adjudicators on administration the English portion of the test comports with the law; and

Inform stakeholders about current passage rates for the citizenship test, including its components. CLINIC is committed to promoting and facilitating naturalization and integration for the foreign born, especially those who are most vulnerable and face barriers in the naturalization process. Visit our website for more on our citizenship and integration initiatives.

More on the USCIS Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program

  • Since its inception in 2009, the program has helped more than 278,000 permanent residents prepare for citizenship.
  • CLINIC affiliates have received funding through this competitive grant program since it began.
  • Of the 17 CLINIC affiliates that received a grant this year, 11 are Catholic legal immigration programs and six are community-based legal groups.
  • 44 percent of grant awardees this year are CLINIC affiliates, the largest percentage ever.
  • Congratulations to:
    • Catholic Charities of Central Texas (Austin)
    • Catholic Charities of Dallas
    • Catholic Charities Diocese of Rochester (New York)
    • Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Stockton (California)
    • Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston
    • Catholic Charities of Orange County (California)
    • Catholic Charities San Bernardino & Riverside (California)
    • Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas (Dodge City)
    • Catholic Charities of Syracuse
    • Catholic Migration Services (Brooklyn, New York)
    • Hope CommUnity Center (Apopka, Florida)
    • Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (Portland)
    • Hispanic Unity of Florida (Hollywood, Florida)
    • La Casa de Don Pedro (Newark, New Jersey)
    • Refugee Women’s Alliance (Seattle)
    • Tacoma Community House (Washington)
    • University of North Carolina at Greensboro
    • And all of the other CLINIC affiliates who are keeping the American dream alive for immigrants!