September 17 was Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, an American federal observance that recognizes the adoption of the United States Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. It’s held because, over two centuries ago, the Founding Fathers signed the U.S. Constitution. Despite the nation proclaiming it was built by immigrants, it’s difficult to obtain citizenship in the U.S. And new considerations for the citizenship test pose an additional challenge.
The Trump Administration changed the test in 2020, making it longer and more difficult to pass. Shortly after he took office, President Biden signed an executive order to reverse it back to its previous version, part of a broader initiative to ease barriers to citizenship (PBS).
But changes to the original test, last updated in 2008, won’t make it easier. The new test adds a speaking section to assess English skills. An officer will show photos of ordinary scenarios—like daily activities, weather, or food—and ask the applicant to verbally describe the photos (PBS).
• How would you fare on the U.S. Citizenship Test? Use these flashcards to test your history skills.
• Support organizations that directly support immigrants in the citizenship process, including Make the Road New York, the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, and Citizenshipworks.
• Reflect on these questions and discuss with a friend: What does being a citizen mean to you? How has your definition of citizenship changed over the past few years? What was your own citizenship journey, and what privileges do you benefit from that may have shaped that journey?
In the current test, an officer evaluates speaking ability by asking questions the applicant has already answered in the naturalization paperwork. This gives the applicants time to prepare their verbal responses. Now, with the situations unknown and the added pressure of performing on the spot, many are concerned that this will further alienate potential applicants (AP News).
Should English language fluency be necessary to be a citizen? We’re an increasingly multicultural country; currently, one in five people in America speak a second language (after English) at home. This number has increased by 300% since 1980 and is only expected to rise (VOA).
The citizenship process is also expensive and may get worse. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees legal immigration, proposed a plan to increase fees by nearly 100% in some cases to help with the overflow. Under the proposed changes, a family of four would pay up to $7,460 for green cards and work permits. Many applicants already have to save for months or years to afford the process, and this may further exclude others from trying—especially those looking to get a green card (NPR).
USCIS has been historically underfunded and relies on application fees almost exclusively for its work. The system is incredibly backlogged, with pending applications from before COVID. Processing was also slower during the Trump Administration.
The current economy is throwing this into the spotlight. We’re in the midst of a labor shortage, but more migrants are arriving in the U.S. looking for work than ever before (NPR). The slow, bureaucratic process makes it hard for these workers to get the necessary work visas. Legislators and business leaders across the country are urging the Biden administration to expedite work visas for industries that need support, including manufacturing, farm work, and hospitality (The Hill).
The citizenship test also takes into account other aspects of an applicant’s history, including whether they’ve been charged with a crime, whether they pay taxes, and whether or not they support their children financially (PBS). These markers of a “good citizen” fail to address how marginalized communities are already negatively impacted by the criminal legal system, nor how lack of citizenship makes it challenging to navigate employment and banking.
Our country was created by immigrants looking for a better future. It should be part of our constitution—literally and metaphorically—to protect that. I hope we reconsider the role of citizenship in our society and champion everyone, especially those most at risk.
• Today marks the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and recognizes the challenges faced by immigrants seeking citizenship, including the recently revised citizenship test.
• Though the Biden Administration reversed the Trump-era changes to make the test more difficult, the new version still includes a speaking section to assess English skills, raising concerns about alienating potential applicants.
• The current labor shortage highlights the need for expedited work visas.