The U.S. citizenship test should be a welcoming rite of passage, not an insidious obstacle
By John C. Yang
As Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC looks forward to working with the Biden Administration on meaningful immigration reform, we face the Trump Administration’s final attempts to deter immigrants from establishing roots in America. In December, the Administration established yet another unfair and unnecessary obstacle for those seeking to become Americans. This time, it targeted the nearly nine million lawful permanent residents who are eligible for U.S.citizenship. The tactic: suddenly overhauling the citizenship civics test.
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rolled out a test that is much more complex and based on contested conservative philosophy, making it more difficult for lawful permanent residents to pass, especially those still learning English. USCIS failed to give a sound rationale for enacting these changes. This sends a troubling message to immigrants who want to become American citizens.
For me, attacks on immigration have always been personal. My family was undocumented for a time and we were able to naturalize under the 1986 immigration laws. Immigrants today should have the opportunities and access to citizenship that my family was afforded.
In fact, I remember my citizenship test. Even 35 years later, I remember questions about the three branches of government and who wrote the Declaration of Independence. I was fortunate because I took it as an adult, after graduating from law school and passing my bar exam. I would challenge anyone suggesting that these tests need to be harder to prove worth as a citizen to take the test themselves.
Advancing Justice — AAJC is committed to making naturalization affordable and accessible for all immigrants. We have joined a coalition of 125 organizations calling for the USCIS to reverse the changes to the exam. We’ve also raised the importance of obtaining comprehensive input from stakeholders before implementing changes that will impact thousands of aspiring U.S. citizens. This is a message we hope the Biden Administration hears as well.
Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have a lot to lose under the new changes to the citizenship exam. Immigration has put Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders among the fastest-growing racial groups in the United States. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Asian American population of the United States is over 18.2 million, and two-thirds of the Asian American population is foreign-born. The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population of the United States is over 1.4 million, and approximately 16% of the NHPI population is foreign-born. Our communities know that the naturalization process is the pathway to full participation in our democracy.
Learning English is not easy, and many immigrants are still making earnest efforts to improve their language skills when they apply for naturalization. The unnecessary complexity of the new exam will make it harder for them to naturalize. In fact, the majority of Asian American immigrants and many foreign-born Pacific Islanders are limited English proficient. The new test has traded simple geography questions, which are more easily understood by a broader audience, for dozens of nuanced questions with complex phrasing. The administration also removed many of the simple questions with one-word answers in an effort to make the test more difficult.
The changes to the naturalization exam also include insidious questions that both mislead those taking the test and misrepresent the Constitution. The exam asks who U.S. Senators and Representatives represent. Although Senators represent all residents of their states and Representatives those of districts, the exam claims that members of Congress only represent citizens. The answer flies in the face of one of the fundamental tenets of the Constitution and decades of legal precedent. Congress represents “The People” — all people. These questions are yet another blatant attempt to erase immigrants from the fabric of our country. Advancing Justice — AAJC will fight to ensure that immigrants are seen and counted. More fundamentally, citizenship in the U.S. has been based on values — the desire to make this country your home and to contribute to the strength and vitality of this nation. Pre-existing wealth and English speaking skills do not reveal such values.
The difficulty and unfair format of the test will impede the AAPI community in different ways. Immigrants from non-English speaking countries and with limited education backgrounds and resources will struggle to pass the test, making naturalization and ultimately citizenship a possibility only for wealthy, English-speaking immigrants. Fewer immigrants passing the exam will also lead to fewer immigrants with the ability to vote. The amount of immigrants who have their voices heard in the country’s elections could start to dwindle.
The past four years of relentless attacks on immigrants and immigration have been challenging, but I remain encouraged by the strength of our communities. This is our country. We belong here. And Advancing Justice — AAJC will continue to fight for fair, affordable and accessible immigration policies and practices.
John C. Yang is the President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.