Homeland Security announced Monday that it is canceling use of the new citizenship test the Trump administration developed and will go back to the test created in the Bush years.
The move is the latest by the new Biden administration to wipe away Trump-era immigration changes and delivers yet another victory to activists who’d called for a clean-slate approach.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that oversees naturalization, said it was making the reversion to comply with President Biden’s new executive order calling for barriers to citizenship to be reduced.
USCIS said it believes the Trump test may be too tough to pass, echoing complaints by immigrant-rights groups.
Yet the early data suggests the opposite. USCIS told The Washington Times the pass rate for the 2020 civics test is higher than 94%, which is better than the 91% rate for the combined civics and English components of the Bush-era test.
USCIS also said the process used to develop the 2020 test was lacking compared to the Bush-era update in 2008.
“The 2008 civics test was thoroughly developed over a multiyear period with the input of more than 150 organizations, which included English as a second language experts, educators and historians, and was piloted before its implementation,” the agency said.
The test, which most applicants for citizenship must complete in full, asks potential citizens to study a list of questions. On the day of the test they must answer 60% correctly.
The Bush-era test had 100 study questions and applicants were asked 10, meaning they had to get six correct. The Trump-era test has 128 study questions and applicants were asked 20, meaning they had to get 12 correct.
The National Partnership for New Americans called the Biden cancellation a welcome “course correction.”
“Today’s announcement is the first of many steps that the Biden administration has pledged to take towards streamlining the naturalization process for those who face barriers like language and high processing fees,” said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the partnership.
But Robert Law, who served as chief of policy at USCIS under President Trump, said the high passage rate of the new test shows the Biden team is acting from political motivations rather than concern for immigrants.
“It’s clearly just an irrational politicization and animosity to anything that came out of the Trump administration,” said Mr. Law, who is now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Alfonso Aguilar, the man who oversaw the 2008 *Bush test’s development, said it takes a catechism approach, with would-be citizens learning about their new country as they prepare for the test.
He said activists at the time complained that his test was too tough and would keep people from passing. But passage rates instead remained high, at above 90%, because migrants took the test seriously and studied for it, he said.
“So, no one should be concerned that applicants will not have a meaningful learning experience if they have to study for the previous test,” Mr. Aguilar said. “But it’s absurd and condescending to applicants to say that the Trump administration’s test was much harder and a barrier to citizenship.”
He added: “This is the typical argument of leftist advocates, many of whom would actually prefer that naturalization applicants not be tested at all.”
Mr. Law said scrapping the new test was an insult to the career staffers who wrote the new test. He said “nearly everybody” involved in the 2008 version was still at the agency and worked on the new test, too.
“So it was basically the band got back together to restart their work,” he said.
“This was an all aboveboard process, this was not politically driven to deny an otherwise eligible applicant from naturalization,” Mr. Law said. “This was just to make the test more meaningful.”
The Trump-era test was supposed to be used by anyone who applied after Dec. 1.
The Biden administration says people who have applied over the last two-and-a-half months, who presumably have been studying for the new test, will be able to choose whether to continue with that one, or to go back to the Bush test.
Applicants who fail are given a chance for one retest. USCIS said anyone who took the 2020 civics test and failed it can request the 2008 version at their second go-around.
USCIS said it will adhere to the Trump-era policy calling for a reexamination of the naturalization test every 10 years.
“The goal is to create a meaningful, uniform and efficient test that will assess applicants’ knowledge and understanding of U.S. history, government and values,” the agency said.
* Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Alfonso Aguilar oversaw the 2008 update during the Bush administration.