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Tough new citizenship test takes effect as Trump leaves office. Why the change?

Applicants like Maikel Parolis of Tampa have to know the answers to 128 questions to feel confident of passing the oral exam.
Yosmaikel Parolis, 25, an owner of All Inclusive Events in Clearwater, said he was surprised and a little daunted when the federal government doubled the number of questions he must answer correctly when he takes the citizenship test.
Yosmaikel Parolis, 25, an owner of All Inclusive Events in Clearwater, said he was surprised and a little daunted when the federal government doubled the number of questions he must answer correctly when he takes the citizenship test. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 31, 2020
Updated Jan. 5

TAMPA — For millions of people living in the United States, it’s the most important test they’ll ever take.

And it just got harder.

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must answer 12 out of 20 test questions correctly as of Dec. 1, double the longstanding requirement of 6 out of 10. That may not sound like a lot considering all that’s at stake, but it reflects just a sample of what applicants must know to be confident of passing.

The 20 questions posed to any one individual are drawn from a list of 128, up from 100 before. Eighty-eight of the questions are new, reflecting a greater emphasis on civics. And as before, they’re not multiple choice. They’re asked and answered orally during a naturalization interview.

The changes are a surprise and a little daunting to applicant Yosmaikel Parolis, 25, of Tampa, who came from Cuba to join his father in the United States seven years ago.

“Studying history and politics at the same time is not easy,” said Parolis, an owner of a Clearwater event venue. “I think it will be very important to study, giving it time and a lot of patience, not only because there are more questions but because they’re more complex.”

The 128 questions fall into three broad categories, 72 of them in the first category — American government. The other two categories are American history, and symbols and holidays.

Why the changes?

To ensure that the process properly assesses applicants’ knowledge of American history, government and civic values, said Joseph Edlow, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“USCIS has diligently worked on revising the naturalization test since 2018, relying on input from experts in the field of adult education to ensure that this process is fair and transparent,” Edlow said.

The agency piloted the test during the summer with community organizations and volunteers across the country, he said. And applicants 65 and older will be required to get just 6 of 10 answers right.

But the new test has raised questions among immigrant advocates. Some say applicants will suffer because Citizenship and Immigration Services can’t handle the more-demanding process at the same time it’s dealing with a $1.2 billion budget shortfall. Others call the test a new brick in the wall of the Trump administration’s acknowledged policy of reducing immigration overall.

Milton Toro, a Tampa immigration attorney, said he hopes the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will reverse the test changes after taking office Jan. 20.

“The old version has been working well, without any problems,” Toro said. “The people who are going to take the test have already shown that they can be honest citizens.”

Xiao Wang, whose Seattle-based Boundless Immigration helps immigrants gain permanent residency, asks why the changes are being made now.

“It’s disappointing,” Wang said, “to see an outgoing administration enact changes a month prior to inauguration day that meaningfully increases the difficulty of individuals to become naturalized U.S. citizens, many of whom have been waiting for this moment for years.”

What’s more, he said, some of the new civics questions require a higher level of English comprehension even though the test portion that specifically assesses use of the language has not changed.

“The majority of native-born Americans would struggle to name the purpose of the 10th Amendment or what ‘E Pluribus Unum’ means,” Wang said. “The wording of questions is based on a secondary education level, eighth through 12th grade, which was never the intent of the exam.”

Adding to the challenge for those taking the test is that classes the government offers were put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, more applicants reached out between July and October to nonprofits offering help with preparation, like Tamarac-based Mira USA.

Tamarac-based Mira USA offers classes and workshops to prepare immigrants in Tampa and across Florida for the new citizenship test.
Tamarac-based Mira USA offers classes and workshops to prepare immigrants in Tampa and across Florida for the new citizenship test. [ Courtesy MIRA USA ]

“It will require more preparation, dedication and effort,” said Suanny Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Mira USA, which helps applicants from Tampa and across Florida.

Making the test tougher was the Trump administration’s goal, said Adonia Simpson, a lawyer for the Miami-based immigrant rights group Americans for Immigrant Justice.

“Overall, this is another barrier and attempt by the administration to make it more difficult for certain immigrant groups to achieve citizenship,” Simpson said, “particularly for individuals whose first language is not English.”

Taking the test is the last in a years-long series of steps for immigrants seeking citizenship.

Citizenship is open only to those already granted status as permanent residents, eligible for a green card. There a number of ways to seek permanent residency, including family or marriage connections and the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. The program is designed for people from countries that have sent relatively few immigrants to the United States in the previous five years.

An immigrant can apply for citizenship after five years as a permanent resident, or three years for those married to a U.S. citizen.

Citizenship and Immigration Services denies that the new test places roadblocks before applicants, noting that some 843,600 people took the oath of citizenship in 2019 — an 11-year high.

Some 45 percent of the estimated 40 million immigrants in the United States are naturalized citizens, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center based on 2017 Census data. The U.S. has a larger immigrant population than any nation, with about three out of four immigrants here legally.

In addition to the civics, history and English tests, citizenship applicants must pass background checks and pay a fee of $1,160 if filing online, $1,170 for a paper filing. From beginning to end, the citizenship process usually takes an applicant seven to 11 months in the Tampa Bay region.

Victoria Gonzalez, 44, of Tampa, a Cuban-born nurse, said she was relieved to learn she would be taking the old citizenship test because her application was well underway by Dec. 1. Having successfully completed all the previous steps, Gonzalez was confident she would pass.

“A friend of mine is helping me with my English and pronunciation,” she said, “but at the end of the day, it’s a lot of stuff that you have to learn.”

Some of the new questions

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has added more questions to the citizenship test, bringing the number to 128. Here is a sampling, with where they fall on the list (answers at the end).

2. What is the supreme law of the land?

8. Why is the Declaration of Independence important?

28. Why does each state have two senators?

31. Who does a U.S. senator represent?

33. Who does a member of the House of Representatives represent?

49. Why is the Electoral College important?

65. What are three rights of everyone living in the United States?

71. Why is it important to pay federal taxes?

81. There were 13 original states. Name 5 (earlier version required 3).

111. Why did the United States enter the Vietnam war?

• • •

Answers: 2. Constitution; 8. It says America is free from British control; 28. Equal representation (for small states), The Great Compromise (Connecticut Compromise); 31. Citizens of their state; 33. Citizens in their district; 49. It decides who is elected president, it provides a compromise between the popular election of the president and congressional selection; 65. Freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion; 71. Required by law; 81. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia; 111. To stop the spread of communism.