- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The federal government intends to replace the current test for U.S. citizenship with one that relies less on knowledge of specific facts and more on an applicant’s grasp of democratic principles, but many immigrant-advocacy groups are up in arms about the change, which they worry may discriminate against those who don’t speak English and with less education.

“We want to focus more on the building blocks of democracy, rather than the colors of the flag” or questions about the name of the form used to apply for naturalized citizenship, which are on the current test for citizenship, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is making the change. USCIS is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Mr. Bentley said USCIS officials want a new test that can ensure that those seeking to become American citizens know about “freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

“Our goal is not to make this test harder or easier for anyone, but to make it much more meaningful,” he said.

Mr. Bentley said the proposal to redesign the test for naturalized citizenship came out of a report by a commission headed by former Rep. Barbara Jordan during the Clinton administration that “looked at all kinds of issues related to immigration.”

The Jordan commission’s report emphasized “effective Americanization of new immigrants, that is the cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy and equal opportunity,” including policies to “help newcomers learn to speak, read and write English effectively.”

The new citizenship test will be administered to all applicants for naturalization nationwide starting in January 2008. However, beginning this winter, at least 5,000 people in 10 cities will take part in a voluntary testing program featuring the new questions.

The number of potential questions will be narrowed from 125 to 100 during the pilot program. To pass, an immigrant must correctly answer six of 10 questions asked.

But more than 220 immigrant organizations, led by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, have signed a letter to USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez denouncing the new test, which they worry will make it harder for “poorer legal immigrants with less English and less education” to win U.S. citizenship.

“Already immigrants must pass a citizenship test that many native-born Americans could not pass,” say groups that include the National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Farm Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

There are some tough questions on the current test and queries that could be described as meaningful. One of the more difficult asks a person to identify amendments to the Constitution guaranteeing voting rights. Others ask what is the “supreme law of the land” — the U.S. Constitution — and the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution).

Just because the test for American citizenship is being revised “does not mean all the current questions will be done away,” said Mr. Bentley. He was unable to provide any sample questions from the new test.

Jack Martin, special-projects director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group that is critical of unlimited immigration, said there are both potential improvements and problems with the proposed changes.

“The effort at standardization makes sense … the concept is good, and there really are some trivial questions on the current test,” he said.

“Our only concern is that questions not be dumbed down” so that immigrants could become American citizens “without having a good understanding of U.S. history, culture and social systems, so they can vote intelligently,” Mr. Martin said, adding that citizenship tests “should be designed to make sure citizens are prepared to participate in our political process.”

As for those worried the new test might be harder or easier, Mr. Bentley said, USCIS intends to avoid those situations “by looking at pass-fail rates of the past.”

Researcher Amy Baskerville contributed to this report.

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