Understanding the New USCIS Naturalization Test

It offers a 100-level civics course. What would Barbara Jordan say?

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 30, 2020

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has revamped the civics portion of the naturalization test. As the Washington Times reported, the new test omits a question specifically dealing with religious freedom, and eliminates a question dealing with freedom of the press. The new test raises the question: What would Barbara Jordan say?

By way of background, the naturalization test consists of two parts: an English language component and a civics component. The English component has not changed, but the civics component has. The changes will apply to any application for naturalization filed on or after December 1.

Under the 2008 version of the civics test, applicants for naturalization are provided with 100 possible questions that they could be asked, with answers thereto. During the actual test itself, USCIS officers ask applicants ten questions from that list, and to pass, applicants must get six of them correct.

Under the new 2020 version of the civics test, applicants will be asked 20 questions from a list of 128 civics test questions, and must get 12 of them correct to pass. Again, USCIS provides applicants with the questions, as well as the answers, in advance.

Question six in the 2008 version asked applicants to name one right or freedom "from" the First Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, that should be "protected by", but that may be semantics. The five possible answers are "speech; religion; assembly; press; [and to] petition the government", consistent with the five rights protected by that amendment.

There is no reference to freedom of the press in the 2020 version, which has sparked some controversy, as the Times notes.

Much that has been published in the past few years supports (in my mind, at least) Thomas Jefferson's statement that: "The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers." But, of course, Jefferson was being flippant and peevish in making this statement: He also said "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter", showing a certain flexibility on the issue.

That said, I would not read much into the change. The 2008 version did not actually explain what freedom of the press was, or how it applied. It would be difficult to live in this country long enough to take the naturalization exam while being exposed to a free press highly critical of the administration and not understand that the Fourth Estate is alive, well, and free.

One significant omission is question 10 on the old test: "What is freedom of religion?" The correct answer is: "You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion." That question has been dropped in the 2020 version, in a somewhat puzzling move.

Similarly, there is no question about the First Amendment protection of religion, although the fact that freedom of religion is a right of everyone living in the United States remains.

Again, the changes to the test as they relate to religion have provoked a response. The Times references statements by one "Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Freedom Forum", who writes: "The 2008 answer to 'what is religious freedom?' may not appeal to an administration that gives voice to those who view the U.S. as a Christian nation (see White House religious advisors) . . . . Moreover, the Trump administration focuses on claims by conservative Christians that their religious liberty is under assault in the U.S."

Respectfully, and getting out of my main subject area somewhat, I would question the former proposition, while asserting that the latter is a non sequitur in this context. Clearly, if the Trump administration were concerned about assaults on religious liberty, it would require a more in-depth understanding of that concept from new citizens – not omit questions relating to freedom of conscience from the naturalization exam.

If I had to make a guess, direct questions about freedom of religion were omitted because even the Supreme Court continues to grapple with the concept. Were there a Lemon test question on the test, I would struggle for the right answer, after three years of law school and more than 28 years of legal practice.

That said, the new test notes that the Constitution (and in particular the Bill of Rights) protects the rights of people living in the United States (even if it does not expressly ask what those rights are), states that "freedom of religion" is a right of everyone living in the United States, makes clear that the colonists came to America for religious freedom (among other reasons), and explains that among Jefferson's achievements was his authorship of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. So, it is not as if the idea of religious liberty has been struck from the new test entirely.

There are some other notable changes to the test.

Susan B. Anthony, nineteenth century proponent of women's rights (as well as "temperance, abolition, the rights of labor, and equal pay for equal work"), had her own question on the 2008 test: "What did Susan B. Anthony do?" Answers: "fought for women's rights"; "fought for civil rights".

While the 2020 test asks the applicant to name one leader of the women's rights movement in the 1800s, Anthony is just one of six right answers. The others are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone.

The 2008 test asked applicants to name one reason that led to the Civil War. The "correct" answers (according to the test) are "slavery", "economic reasons", and "states' rights" – the latter two politically weighted and questionable answers, to say the least. The 2020 test omits this question, while noting that the Civil War ended slavery.

The 2008 test asked applicants to name one American Indian Tribe in the United States. There were 22 tribes identified at that time. The 2020 test asks the same question, while identifying 25. Seneca, Cayuga, Inupiat, Mohawk, Onondaga, and Tuscarora were added to the new test, while Iroquois, Inuit, and Arawak were dropped.

I have no basis of knowledge of American Indian affairs, and therefore no real idea why these changes were made. But if I were asked, I would speculate that small "p" politics and lobbying may have played a role. Again, however, that is just a guess.

The single question about September 11th ("What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?") has been expanded to two (adding "Name one U.S. military conflict after the September 11, 2001 attacks."). The answer to the first ("Terrorists attacked the United States") has been expanded, adding the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, as well as the events surrounding Flight 93, as correct answers.

And, the question about how many justices are on the Supreme Court (question 39 in the old test), has been amended to ask how many seats are on the Court (question 53 on the new test). The old (2008) test did not provide a direct answer (it directed applicants to an update page), while the new does: "Nine (9)." Given recent questions that have arisen about so-called "court packing", it is difficult to conclude that the change was a coincidence, but I have no evidence that it was not.

All of this brings me to Barbara Jordan.

In her September 11, 1995 opinion piece in the New York Times captioned "The Americanization Ideal", Jordan, a civil-rights icon and then-Chairman of President Clinton's Commission on Immigration Reform, noted: "The United States has united immigrants and their descendants around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles. . . . Americanization means becoming a part of the polity -- becoming one of us."

She continued: "Immigration imposes mutual obligations. Those who choose to come here must embrace the common core of American civic culture. . . . We must renew civic education in the teaching of American history for all Americans."

The Washington Times quotes Alfonso Aguilar, who, as head of the Office of Citizenship in USCIS during the George W. Bush administration, oversaw the 2008 rewrite of the civics test. He asserts that the changes in the 2020 test "were more likely made by career officials and escaped notice by political leadership." That is consistent with my understanding of the workings of the agency.

It would be "ideal" if the naturalization process – including preparation for the civics test – tried to achieve Jordan's goal of civic education for all Americans, new and old. Respect for differences of opinion and religion, and respect for the value of all Americans – native and immigrant, regardless of race, color, place of birth, or creed – are sine qua non for our continued existence and vitality as a nation. They are values that should be included in the civics test.

And, frankly, after reviewing that test, at least the career officials who drafted it tried to do so. Should we expect candidates for citizenship to fully understand freedom of religion and the necessity of a free press? Absolutely. Could the 2020 test do a better job in these regards? Yes. But, as a whole, it makes clear that religious liberty is one of the bedrocks of this nation, our system of government has its roots in many sources going back to our founding, and no one is above the law.

Consider the preparation materials for the naturalization test to be a 100-level college course in U.S. civics. It provides the basics, but it would be impossible for it to offer a doctoral lesson in what it means to participate in the American experience, with its rights and obligations. That is up to our society as a whole – not just our institutions, but each of us, as Americans.

In the depths of World War II (which is covered on the test, by the way, questions 105 to 107), Winston Churchill stated: "Deserve victory!" To paraphrase the late prime minister: "Deserve Barbara Jordan's Americanization Ideal, too."