Biden's throwing out another Trump rule that made it harder to become a citizen


The previous administration's citizenship test significantly slowed the approval process by as much as three times, according to an immigration expert.

The Biden administration, in a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services policy alert released Monday, rescinded a Trump administration policy that could have significantly slowed down the citizenship naturalization process for hundreds of thousands of applicants.

The previous administration implemented a new version of the U.S. civics test on Dec. 1, 2020, one that experts and immigration advocates say created more hurdles for legal citizenship. That version of the test increased the number of possible questions from 100 to 128, and naturalization applicants were required to answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly, in order to pass.

With Monday's announcement, the civics test portion of the citizenship application reverts to the prior 2008 version, which required applicants to correctly answer 6 out of 10 questions correctly in order to pass.

Sarah C. Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told the American Independent Foundation in an email that Trump's expansion of the citizenship test meant U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services adjudicators were forced to spend even more time processing applications, leading to delays.

"Under the 2008 test, adjudicators only needed to ask as many questions as it took for the applicant to pass — so it frequently was as few as six," she explained. "Under the [Trump administration's] test, adjudicators [had to] ask 20 questions each time, even if the applicant passed after the first 12."

The additional questions meant the Trump administration's civics test was extended "by as much as three times."

"Even if that adds as little as 5 minutes per interview, that equates to 4,000,000 minutes of the 800,000 naturalization adjudications each year," she said.

Such a burden would likely have strained an already "struggling institution that barely staved off a major furlough" in 2020, she added.

Laura Burdick, field support coordinator for the immigration advocacy nonprofit Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., said in an email that Trump's 2020 version "was clearly a harder test," calling it "a barrier to citizenship."

"It has more questions to learn, and many of the questions are more difficult than before," she said, noting that "instead of naming three of the original 13 states, the [Trump-era] test asks for five."

"Our [analysis] shows the impact of just a small decrease in the pass rate: Tens of thousands more people would fail [the] test and be denied naturalization," Burdick added, citing a policy paper she authored for the nonprofit in December 2020. That paper noted that, if the pass rate for the citizenship test had fallen by just 5% in fiscal year 2019, when the USCIS received 830,560 naturalization applications, for instance, then "it would have caused over 40,000 people to be denied."

Melissa Rodgers, director of programs for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, made similar observations in a statement on Monday.

"President Trump's citizenship test was the product of bigotry and xenophobia, not civics, or a desire to improve the naturalization process. The Trump administration never provided a substantive rationale or legal justification for its new test, which was 30 percent longer and designed to be more difficult for applicants without a college education or advanced English-language fluency," she said.

Other applicants who also have major challenges to passing the test include those of advanced age, Burdick said Monday.

Each year, an average of anywhere between approximately 750,000 to 950,000 people apply for naturalization. In the 2020 fiscal year, 706,000 naturalization applications were completed from the 967,900 received applications, according to a 2020 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report.

While the number of applicants naturalized slowed last year largely due to the pandemic, the 2020 civics test could have kept approved applications low given the longer process, likely resulting in "thousands [of] more denials," Burdick said.

Rodgers, meanwhile, applauded Biden's revocation of the 2020 civics test as part of a "critical step" and "essential" process for "returning USCIS to its mission of customer service, and addressing the Trump administration's massive naturalization backlog of more than 700,000 people."

Under the Trump administration's policy, applicants who applied for naturalization on Dec. 1, 2020 (when the new civics test was implemented) would have needed to take the new version at their interview, and "were having to study and prepare for the new test," Burdick said.

"At the same time, the Office of Citizenship at USCIS was scrambling to revise its test preparation materials to help people study for the new test," she added. "The implementation was so sudden that many of the new materials were not ready."

Now, she said, "these folks will have a choice on whether to take the new or old test."

Biden's new policy will take effect on March 1, 2021. Applicants who filed for naturalization between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021, and have interviews scheduled before April 19, 2021, will have the option to take the 2008 or 2020 version of the citizenship test, as Burdick noted.

"We’re very pleased that the 2020 test was rescinded, and look forward to working with the new administration to ensure that naturalization is accessible and efficient," she added.

Other experts, such as Christine Chen, Esq., the Citizenship project director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, have similarly praised the Biden administration for undoing the Trump-era policy.

"For so many reasons, this decision by the Biden administration is the right one to make," Chen said in an email on Monday, noting that her organization had condemned the previous policy as "a ploy to keep citizenship out of reach for those with limited English proficiency." More than half — 52% — of Asian American immigrants "and approximately 45% of foreign-born Pacific Islanders are limited English proficient," she said.

"We look forward to sharing this welcoming news with our communities and hope for a more compassionate and thoughtful approach to immigration policy and reform from the Biden administration," she added.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.