Cesar Martinez holds a folder containing his naturalization certificate in his home in Shakopee. Martinez’s wife is currently studying for the revised citizenship exam, and she hopes to be interviewed in 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland

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Cesar Martinez had a difficult time studying for the U.S. citizenship test.

Martinez, who says that he has never gone to school a day in his life, memorized five questions every day from a study guide over the course of a few months. In total, he studied 100 questions that might appear on the test.

So when an immigration officer in Minnesota interviewed him in 2013, Martinez correctly answered six out of 10 questions on the citizenship test portion. The officer didn’t even have to ask the remaining four questions—Martinez had already passed.

Martinez, 46, who lives in Shakopee and now works as a truck driver, had previously held a green card as an immigrant from Mexico. He needed to become a citizen so that his wife, who was then undocumented, could pursue legal immigration status.

During a citizenship applicant’s interview, an immigration officer verbally asks an applicant questions during the test portion. The applicant must respond from memory, referring back to a list of acceptable answers.

Now, the civics test is longer, harder, and more expensive. This fall, the Trump administration rolled out a new test for people applying for citizenship after December 1. Rather than correctly answering six out of 10 questions, applicants must answer 12 out of 20 questions instead. 

There are also 28 additional questions that could appear on the test. Further, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has eliminated simpler questions and added more complicated ones. The Trump administration change also boosts the cost of applying for citizenship from $640 to $1,160.

After submitting an application for citizenship, USCIS schedules an interview with the applicant. During the interview at a USCIS office, the applicant takes a reading and writing test, as well as the civics test. A USCIS officer then approves or rejects the applicant’s request for naturalization. Applicants get two chances to pass the test.

While some immigration attorneys in Minnesota say they have yet to receive any new December applications, they predict the new citizenship test will become the norm.

“There are too many other immigration issues that need to be revisited,” Marc Prokosch said of President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to ease regulation on immigration. “This is probably way down on the totem pole for a new administration to take another look at.”

The old version of the test had a 91 percent pass rate, according to USCIS. Prokosch, the senior attorney at Prokosch Law LLC, said his clients generally tend to pass if they study enough. Prokosch works a range of cases out of his office in Roseville, including naturalization and family-based immigration cases.

Martha Castañon, a legal representative for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota’s Moorhead office, agreed. She also said the test probably won’t change back. If it ever does, people will already have gotten used to preparing for the longer version of the test, Castañon said.

Dan Hetlage, a spokesman for USCIS said in a statement to the New York Times that the test was revised “to ensure that it remains an instrument that comprehensively assesses applicants’ knowledge of American history, government and values and supports assimilation.”

“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,” said Joseph Edlow, USCIS Deputy Director for Policy, in a statement.

But Prokosch said the changes to the 2008 iteration of the test are a final effort from the Trump administration to curb immigration.

“The outgoing administration has clearly been targeting and limiting all immigrants from day one,” Prokosch said. “You can see it from H-1B and H-4 rules to student visas, the Muslim ban, the public charge rule, and re-framing the message on the Statue of Liberty.” 

(In an August 2019 interview Ken Cuccinelli, the head of USCIS, proposed a new reading* of the passage inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. To the original text, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli added the phrase, “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”) 

Castañon expressed concerns that there is already a high backlog for citizenship interviews since most USCIS offices have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This move would impose an additional burden in naturalization cases—especially since the questions are unnecessarily complex, she added.

“There are clients that have difficulty processing all that information,” Castañon said, especially when it comes to the new questions like, “Many documents influenced the U.S. Constitution, name one.” Or, “Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.”

USCIS posts all of the test’s potential questions online, and the new version is now available on the agency’s website. Immigration lawyers usually advise their clients to use this document as a study guide.

Do you think you could pass the citizenship test? Here are some questions you may have to answer. Check your answers and explore more questions here.

Why did the United States enter the Vietnam War?

Who does a U.S. senator represent?

Name one example of an American innovation.

Many documents influenced the U.S. Constitution. Name one.

Name two important ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

New questions reveal an ‘ideological tilt’ 

Castañon typically gets a good idea of how well a client will do on the test during her intake sessions. She asks them a few simple questions and gives them a pocket-sized study guide to bring home. Some of her adult clients who are enrolled in English as a second language will study during class. She encourages some clients to study with their kids who have grown up and gone to school in the United States, too.

Prokosch also advises his clients to use the USCIS study guide. Still, the new questions seem different. 

“I’m more concerned that some of the proposed questions are less black and white,” Prokosch said. “What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States? Nobody is going to have an issue with that.”

Other questions, Prokosch said, include a more “ideological tilt.” For example, why did the United States enter the Vietnam War? The only correct answer: to stop the spread of communism.

But Prokosch said his clients will likely just accept the changes. “They’re at the cusp of becoming citizens, they’re not going to voice concerns. They’re just going to say: What do I have to do?

What they can do, Prokosch said, is brute-force memorization. For applicants whose primary language uses the Latin alphabet, they shouldn’t have too much trouble. But if a client comes from a country that uses its own alphabet, they’ll have to study harder.

Castañon has noticed that she’s been getting more clients from Iraq who use the Arabic alphabet. These immigrants may already be at a disadvantage for the reading and writing portion of the test. The new civics test adds to the difficulty.

In general, a person’s ability to pass the civics test can vary greatly depending on age, background, language, and more. In fact, according to a report by The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which works to strengthen American education, two out of three lifelong Americans would not pass the older, easier citizenship test.

How much to study for the citizenship exam? 

Prokosch has another client who is waiting for her interview with USCIS. Asha Sorenson, 26, born to an Indian mother and British father in England, first came to the United States during a study abroad program in college. She met her husband at the University of Minnesota. Now, she’s trying to become a citizen.

Sorenson, who currently works in consulting, grew up speaking English, earned an advanced degree, and describes herself as having a “top of the class attitude.” She’s studied U.S. history, too. 

“I feel bad saying that I am confident,” Sorenson said. “I’m acutely aware of how other people might not be.” 

Prokosch joked that Sorenson will probably overprepare. “It really varies on the individual. Somebody like Asha—who’s coming from Great Britain, reads the news—she probably could get by with a handful of hours of studying.” 

Martinez, on the other hand, spent months preparing. 

Martinez and his daughter are helping his wife prepare for her citizenship test, which she will probably take in the next year or so. She applied earlier this year, so she’ll be able to take the older and shorter version of the test. Martinez told his wife, “You have to just take a deep breath and listen to the questions. Relaxing is sort of the key.”

He joked that his wife is studying even harder than he did seven years ago.

*Clarification: This passage has been changed to reflect the fact that Ken Cuccinelli, the head of USCIS, proposed a new interpretation of the poem at the Statue of Liberty, but did not change the text on display.

Hibah Ansari

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