Washington The Bush administration unveiled a revamped citizenship test Thursday intended to promote assimilation and patriotism, a redesign critics contend erects a higher hurdle for immigrants who want to become citizens.
The 100 civics questions that test knowledge of American government, history and civics will now be asked in a way that relies less on rote memorization and focuses more on fostering an identification with American values.
Applicants are currently asked "What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?" But starting Oct. 1, 2008, legal immigrants taking the test could be asked to explain why the colonists fought the British. They also will have to describe what the "rule of law" is and outline one constitutional amendment concerning the right to vote.
"This is a naturalization test which genuinely captures the applicant's knowledge of what it is he's about ready to be, a United States citizen," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's no longer a test about how many stars are on the flag or how many stripes, it's a test that genuinely talks about those things that make America what it is."
But immigration advocates who tried to shape the test's redesign expressed deep disappointment. Some said that, with the recent 69 percent increase in citizenship application fees, it is another barrier for legal immigrants hoping to become Americans. They noted that the current 96 fact-based questions can be correctly answered in various ways, but the new, abstract questions require the exact answers in the study materials.
"We've always been concerned that people with lower levels of education would have trouble with this new test and people of lower income would not be able to pay for the process," said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "Mexicans, as a group, fall into that category. That's always been a concern. Of course, the administration will deny it."
Karen Narasaki, director of the Asian American Justice Center, worked with federal immigration officials on overhauling the test. She said that while the update was needed, "they seem to have missed the mark. We do think this adds to the barriers to citizenship."
Narasaki is among those who question whether the Bush administration may be politicizing the test. She pointed to one question in particular that she said encapsulates the test's increased difficulty as well as a new political tinge. "The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution," question 67 reads. "Name one of the writers."
The Federalist Papers, a series of articles advocating ratification of the Constitution, are cited as an inspiration by conservatives who believe in restricting the federal government's power. During the 2006 immigration debate, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., offered an amendment that required immigrants taking the citizenship test to know about the Federalist Papers.
"This seems to be something pushed by conservatives with a conservative agenda," Narasaki said. "There aren't a whole lot of other people who think this is relevant to a new immigrant, to help them understand who we are as a country."
Chris Bentley, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, disputed those charges. "This was an important event that helped shape the Constitution," Bentley said of the Federalist Papers. "That's why it's there."
The questions are just one part of the naturalization process. Applicants are also required to write and read basic English sentences that focus on civics and undergo an interview. They are asked 10 of the civics questions and must answer six correctly to pass.