The Case for Abolishing the Citizenship Exam


It’s expensive, ineffective, and discriminatory.

A U.S. citizenship test review booklet and notes. Robyn Beck/Getty Images

On Nov. 13, the Trump administration added new civics questions to the United States citizenship exam and required immigrants answer more questions to pass. The policy shift, which will take effect Tuesday, adds yet another roadblock on top of previous policies that have been widely criticized as xenophobic, like raising application fees, slashing the resettlement program, and restricting asylum eligibility . President-elect Joe Biden could certainly roll these policies back when he takes office. But these changes raise the question: Why keep the exam at all? The notoriously complex test is an unnecessary barrier to citizenship for immigrants who are otherwise legally eligible to apply.

Each week along with other volunteers, I host a citizenship clinic for a group of 20 Syrian refugees. Over the course of the 90-minute class, students laugh as they stumble over the pronunciation of the three branches of government, and the answer to the question “what is the rule of law?” Though fun, the class has an urgent goal—this information is a prerequisite for their inclusion as citizens of the United States.

Immigrants, including the refugees in my class, can apply for citizenship after maintaining permanent residence for a minimum of five years. To begin the application process, they fill out an N400 form, which asks demographic information and questions pertaining to their “moral character”—such as whether they have ever been imprisoned for a felony, engaged in sex work, or trafficked drugs. They must pay $1,160 per person, a filing fee the Trump administration recently increased from $725.

After clearing these hurdles, they must face what U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services identifies as the most “worrisome” part of the process for immigrants—sitting for the naturalization exam.

The exam consists of two parts: English and civics. The English exam includes reading and writing basic sentences, as well as answering orally the questions posed on the N400 form. For civics, immigrants are asked 10 out of a possible 100 questions in the study guide. Six is currently the passing score. Questions vary in difficulty from “Who is the president?” to “The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.”

Beginning Dec. 1, the English exam will stay the same, but applicants will be required to answer 12 civics questions correctly out of 20, from a list of a possible 128—an adjustment that experts say will make the exam harder and longer, and is sure to further delay the already yearslong waits for the naturalization exam.

But this recent policy is simply worsening an already difficult and unnecessary bureaucratic obstacle. Even before Trump took office, only 67 percent of immigrants who qualify for citizenship naturalized. In Canada, which has the highest rate in the world, 86 percent naturalize.

Sociologist Irene Bloemraad attributes this discrepancy to a higher investment in immigrants by the Canadian government, in the form of social assistance, language classes, and support for ethnic organizations. Still, in Canada, the introduction of new fees, and new knowledge and language requirements on the exam, resulted in a decline in naturalization rates—particularly for immigrants with lower incomes, educational skills, and language abilities.

In the United States, where there is a depleted social safety net, and almost no investment in immigrants, the disparity in access to citizenship is stark. Refugees in my classroom must figure out how to study for the exam while working long hours at multiple jobs that do not necessarily expose them to English speakers. Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross feel extremely distant to those working the backs of bars or cleaning hotels.

To fill the gaps in their knowledge, immigrants qualified to apply for the exam download study guides from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website or enroll in courses like the one I offer. Due to the steep cost of the exam, immigrants only apply when they are sure they will pass, and 90 percent who take it do. Many, however, give up before they get to this stage. In 2015, a Pew study estimated that only 42 percent of eligible Mexican immigrants applied for citizenship, citing language barriers and application costs. They trail behind other groups of immigrants with higher median incomes.

But, as Michigan State University professor Paula Winke argues, even for those who do pass, the test only measures how well they have mastered the study guides, not how well they know their history or their rights. As educators know, students do not retain material when you teach with a focus on testing.

What’s more, the exam only covers a narrow sliver of this history. Today, the only person of color mentioned on the exam is Martin Luther King Jr. There are only two questions on the civil rights movement, while there are 20 on the colonial period and independence. There is mention of the pilgrims’ Thanksgiving, but not of the mass killings of Native Americans.

This isn’t an accident. The citizenship exam was created in the spirit of racism and exclusion. Immigration Acts in 1906 and 1952 instituted an English language requirement and a civics requirement, respectively. Both laws were passed amid rising xenophobia after new waves of immigration, first against Eastern and Southern Europeans, and then against Jewish refugees post-WWII. The former upheld whiteness as a requirement for naturalization while the latter reinforced racist national immigration quotas.

It is time to abandon this part of our history the way we have abandoned literacy tests for voting and immigration quotas—discriminatory tools designed to limit who has a voice and presence in our citizenry. Certainly, eliminating the application fee or changing the exam questions to be more reflective of United States history could be steps in the right direction.

But guarding citizenship with an exam is itself the problem.

It is an ineffective tool for relaying information on rights and history that immigrants need and it is a discriminatory requirement, particularly hard to fulfill for immigrants at the margins. And it sends the message that immigrants who have already made a home here, who are already contributors to our communities, do not deserve to have a voice in them.

Of course, we should provide immigrants with an opportunity to learn about United States history and civics, and to learn English. We can do that by redirecting our resources from gatekeeping to providing a free and inclusive education on our rights and those who fought for them, perhaps as a prerequisite to submitting the citizenship application.

It is unsurprising that an administration that has made concerted denaturalization efforts is attempting to make an already problematic exam more complicated. But the next administration doesn’t need to continue this exclusionary policy.

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