Marc Prokosch provides study guides to his clients who are preparing for the citizenship test. Applicants must answer six out of ten civics questions correctly to pass. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that the agency will revert to the previous version of the citizenship test for applications filed after March 1.

Back in December, on the way out of office, the Trump administration tried to change the citizenship test to a version that would have been longer, harder, and more expensive. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced February 22 that the 2020 version of the test would “inadvertently create potential barriers to the naturalization process.” 

“USCIS aspires to make the process as accessible as possible as directed by President Biden’s request to review the process thoroughly,” the agency said in a statement.

The decision came under an executive order from President Joe Biden that directed a comprehensive review of the naturalization process, with the goal of eliminating barriers. Immigration experts, like Martha Castañon from the Immigrant Law Center in Minnesota, didn’t see the change coming. Speaking to Sahan Journal in December 2020, Castañon said the new test would likely be set in stone.

“I was very surprised,” said Castañon about the latest plan. ““It’s very welcoming to hear this news, knowing that my clients don’t have to study some of the harder questions.” 

Marc Prokosch, the senior attorney at Prokosch Law LLC, told Sahan Journal in December that changing the citizenship test back would fall “way down on the totem pole for a new administration.” But when Biden won the presidential election, Prokosch started to tell his clients to hold off on studying the more difficult test questions. 

“The previous administration did inject a lot of political viewpoints into the new test,” Prokosch said. Changing the test back, then, ended up being a higher priority for the Biden administration than Prokosch had expected. “Because of the symbolic nature of it, it was an easy thing for them to target.”

Kathy Klos is also an attorney at the Immigrant Law Center. With so many changes to immigration under consideration in the Biden administration, Klos said she’s glad to see that the citizenship test became a priority.

“We see how hard our clients study to try to pass this, and how challenging the test is anyway,” Klos said. “This just makes me feel relieved because it’ll be a lot less stressful for our clients moving forward.”

Instead of 20 questions, back to ten

Citizenship applicants who filed after December 1, 2020 and before March 1 likely have been studying for the harder version of the test. So, USCIS said the agency will give these applicants the option of which test they would like to take. The 2020 test will be fully phased out by April 19. Applicants filing after March 1 will automatically receive the previous version of the test during their interview.

USCIS reported that the previous civics test, which had been offered since 2008, followed input from more than 150 organizations, English as a second language experts, educators, and historians. 

During a citizenship applicant’s interview, an immigration officer asks an applicant questions during the test portion. To pass the test, an applicant has to correctly answer six out of ten questions. There are 100 possible questions that may be asked: All of these appear in a study guide available on the USCIS website. Applicants get two chances to pass the test, which has a 91 percent pass rate, according to USCIS.

Under the Trump administration, USCIS would have required applicants to answer 12 out of 20 questions out of a potential 128 questions. USCIS would have also eliminated simpler questions and added more complicated ones. For example, why did the United States enter the Vietnam War? The only correct answer would have been—to stop the spread of communism.

According to USCIS, the Trump administration made the changes as part of a review process the agency conducts every ten years. Some immigration attorneys saw it as a last ditch attempt from the Trump administration to make naturalization harder to obtain.

Immigration attorney describes an intimidating process

Marcos Ramirez is a private immigration attorney at Nexum Legal in Bloomington. Ramirez said he welcomes the changes. He characterizes naturalization as an intimidating process to begin with. Asking applicants harder questions would have added to the difficulty.

“I felt that they were very subjective to interpretation,” Ramirez said about the questions that clients would have to study under a new test. “If we go back to the old test, it will be a benefit, because clients will be a little bit more comfortable with the questions.”

Ramirez said he hopes that the Biden administration will also consider decreasing the filing fee so that the process remains accessible to more people. 

The application filing fee is currently set at $640, but under Trump’s revisions it would have cost $1,160. Just three days before the fee increase was scheduled to go into effect, a U.S. District Court in California issued a nationwide injunction to keep the fee at $640.

USCIS will be hosting a webinar March 3 where attendees can ask questions about the test transition and the naturalization process.

Hibah Ansari

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.