Monday, November 23, 2020

The Revised Naturalization Civics Exam - Another Attempt by the Trump Administration to Discourage Immigrants from Becoming U.S. Citizens

Guest blogger: Violeta Velazquez, law student, University of San Francisco

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency announced on November 13, 2020 that it will implement new changes to the Civics Exam portion of the Naturalization Application Process. The changes are to take effect beginning December 1, 2020, therefore, any individual filing a naturalization application on that date or after will be subject to these new changes. [1]

            The current civics exam portion of the test consists of 100 questions. Applicants are asked up to 10 questions from a general bank of 100 and must respond correctly to 6 out of those 10 in order to pass. The revised exam will increase the number of questions to 128 questions. The applicant will now be required to correctly respond to 12 out of 20 questions in order to pass instead of the 6 out of 10. Moreover, the USCIS officer will continue to ask all 20 questions rather than stop once the applicant has answered 12 correct questions. [2]

The new version of the test will incorporate the 128 questions into three categories - American government, American history, and symbols and holidays. Although many questions will remain the same the response will require a more thorough answer. For instance, under the current test, one question asks the applicant to name 3 of the 13 original states. The new test will ask the applicant to name 5 in order to answer it correctly. Another current question asks that the applicant name one branch of government, whereas the new test will require the applicant to name all three. Another question will ask, “Why is the electoral college important?” [3] These questions may not seem difficult, however, most Americans would likely be unable to answer these questions let alone memorize all 128 questions.

The current exam is not an easy test by any means. One poll conducted in October of 2018 showed that only a little over a third of Americans would pass a basic multiple choice U.S.  Citizenship test, similar to the one that immigrants must take to obtain naturalization. The survey released by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that out of a sample of 1,000 American adults only 36% actually passed the test. [4]

            Many immigrants seeking citizenship already face a number of obstacles such as English language and educational barriers. On top of that they face barriers directly from the U.S. government. Over the last 4 years the Trump administration’s immigration policies have made it exceedingly more difficult for people to obtain U.S. Citizenship, such as longer wait times for interviews, longer wait times for oath ceremonies, as well as the administration’s most recent failed attempt to increase the naturalization fee from the current fee of $725 to $1,160.

            Many critics argue that it’s unnecessary to make this test even more overly complex and ideological. Adding more questions to the test and requiring the applicant to respond to more questions will inevitably make the test longer, which will mean few interviews can be conducted, and thus the backlogs increase even further. Critics indeed view this change as an obvious attempt to thwart immigrants who are legally eligible for U.S. citizens to become citizens. [5]

            It is likely that President-Elect Biden will reverse this policy, though it’s unclear how long that will take, considering that President-Elect Biden has a long list of anti-immigrant policies to reverse that were implemented under the Trump administration. I personally believe that President-Elect Biden should not only reverse this new civics exam, but should consider making it easier and more efficient or at least giving immigrants applying for citizenship different options for how to demonstrate understanding of civics and government.   

If the goal is to teach immigrants the principles of American democracy, history, and civics, having someone memorize 100 or 128 questions and the answers culminating in one exam is not the most efficient way of doing that. Those memorized facts for a test can easily be forgotten. While I think that there is some merit to learning the basics of the structure of the local, state, and federal government as well as the voting process, there are other values and principles that should matter and should be taken into account. One of those values should be fostering community engagement.

Whoever Bien chooses as head of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service agency should consider whether there can be other alternatives that an applicant can choose to demonstrate understanding of civics and also consider if the current test is really accomplishing its goal.


[1] “U.S. citizenship test will be harder. Here’s where to find the new questions and answers.” Miami Herald. November 20, 2020.

[2] “Trump administration's revisions to the naturalization exam could make the test harder for immigrants seeking citizenship.” CNN. November 10, 2020.

[3] “Revised U.S. citizenship test will require immigrants to answer more questions.” CBSNews. November 13, 20202.

[4] “Most of us would fail the U.S. citizenship test, survey finds.” NBCNews. October 12, 2018.

[5] “Trump officials unveil new U.S. citizenship test, as advocates worry it is too long, difficult and politicized.” The Washington Post. November 13, 2020.


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Posted by: Liam Joshon | Feb 27, 2021 5:59:26 AM

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