Monday, December 04, 2006

Does New Citizenship Test Pass on Fairness?

On November 29, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) released a new pilot naturalization exam with 144 revised questions. The pilot exam includes more conceptual questions on U.S. history, the Constitution, and civics. USCIS plans to pilot the test early 2007 in 10 cities, narrow the test to 100 questions, and release the redesigned exam in 2008. On the exam, applicants must answer 6 out of 10 oral questions correctly in order to pass. The current passage rates for the exam are 84 percent for first-time takers and 95 percent for second-time takers.

Organizations including the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) have raised concerns that the exam changes, potential application fee increases, and a proposed electronic pre-application system, could disproportionately create a barrier to citizenship to low-income and less formally educated immigrants. ICIRR Policy Director Fred Tsao said "the questions certainly needed to be revised...Our main concern is the level of difficulty." For example, the new question, "why do we have three branches of government?" is vague according to Tsao.

According to Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the UCIS Office of Citizenship the changes are linked to the "Americanization movement" that occurred with the wave of immigrants at the turn of last century. The proposal for new questions on U.S. history, civics, and English came during the 1990s from the Commission on Immigration Reform chaired by late Representative Barbara Jordan. According to the Commission, the "Americanization" movement derived from two sources, settlement house workers aiding immigrants and protectionist organizations. Debate over the naturalization exam, however, dates back to as early as 1906, when U.S. naturalization law first required knowledge of spoken English. The government added the English literacy requirement under the Internal Security Act of 1950. The current exam is required by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The testing sites for the pilot exam include Albany, NY; Boston, MA; Charleston, SC; Denver, CO; El Paso, TX; Kansas City, MO; Miami, FL; San Antonio, TX; Tucson, AZ; and Yakima, WA. Applicants who participate in the pilot exam and fail may immediately take the current exam. Unsuccessful applicants who fail part of the pilot exam may immediately retake on that part of the current exam, according to USCIS.

The Mercury News identified a mistake in the pilot exam. The correct answer to the pilot question "What is the longest river in the United States?" is the Missouri River and not the Mississippi River, as published by USCIS. The redesigned pilot test also includes the following questions:

What does the Constitution do?
Why do we have three branches of government?
What does it mean that the U.S. Constitution is a constitution of limited powers?
Name one famous battle in the Revolutionary War
What is the current minimum wage in the US?
What is the tallest mountain in the United States?
Where is the Grand Canyon?
Which U.S. World War II general later became President?
What alliance of North America and European countries was created during the Cold War?
What is the "rule of law"?

Would you pass?