DHS Announces a Slightly More Difficult Naturalization Test

By David North on November 16, 2020

Supposing there is a test in which:

  • All of the answers are known in advance;
  • There are a limited number of questions to be asked, with all the answers pre-published;
  • The passing score is 60 percent;
  • Older people are given an even less challenging version; and
  • 91 percent of the test takers routinely pass.

Might one regard such a test as somewhere between easy and meaningless?

What I have just described is the current U.S. naturalization test, conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has announced a very slightly more rigorous version of that test, which was greeted by a November 13 Washington Post headline saying, in part: "advocates worry it is too long, difficult and politicized."

Does the Post tell its readers that all the answers are published in advance?

No, it does not.

Does it mention the passing score of 60 percent?

Yes, but it fails to mention either the even easier version of the test for long-time residents over 65, or the current passing rate of 91 percent.

What the article did mention is that test-takers will be faced with 12, not six, pre-published questions and answers. The number of potential questions has risen from 100 to 128.

The "politicization" is apparently a reference to a change in wording that is so nuanced that 99.9 percent of the test-takers will never notice. The older test asked "Who does a U.S. Senator represent? With the pre-published answer being "All the people of the state."

The new reply is "Citizens of their state." The apparent implication is that the senator need not represent green card holders and other aliens, legal or illegal.

The Naturalization Test as a Mild Brake to Chain Migration. While the Post reporter had an obligation to her readers to write about the easiness of the test, she can be excused from missing another, migration-related factor: the indirect role that naturalization — or the lack of it — plays in controlling chain migration.

Both green card holders and citizens can cause the immigration of their overseas relatives, but the incidence of citizens doing so is, by law, much more significant for citizens (including naturalized ones) than it is for green card holders. And, as we have known for a long time, most new legal immigrants are not admitted because of either their skills or their refugee status, they are admitted for nepotistic reasons — they have one or more relatives living in legal status in the States.

More specifically, there are three broad classes of family relatives in our immigration system:

  1. Immediate relatives of citizens; they are admitted as soon as their forms are processed, and there are no numerical limits on this group;
  2. Other relatives of citizens (first, third, and fourth family-sponsored preferences) and their spouses and children, and here there are backlogs and ceilings; and
  3. Immediate relatives of green card holders, a class in which both numerical ceilings and backlogs apply.

("Immediate relatives" of citizens includes parents, while "immediate relatives" of green card holders do not include parents.)

How large is each of these three categories? In FY 2017, a typical year, Table 6 of DHS's Yearbook of Immigration Statistics shows these totals:

  1. 516,508
  2. 118,738
  3. 113,500

Thus non-citizens' relatives (class C) amounted to about 15 percent of family (or chain) migration.

Making the naturalization test a little harder thus lowers the number of arriving migrants a bit, and in a second-hand sort of way it increases the human capital of the incoming cohort. I suspect that the DHS decision-makers were aware of this.

The new test, announced after the election, is just another indication of how slowly the Trump administration was to use administrative procedures (such as the test) to slow the flow of immigrants. Similarly, various long overdue foreign worker program reforms, such as changes in the H-1B program, were rolled out in the fourth year of the administration, instead of much earlier.

I suspect that the incoming Biden administration will be quick to hire the needed political appointees to start undoing many of the reforms created by the departing Trump administration. Further — and this comes from a political appointee in the JFK and LBJ years — the Biden administration will not make the mistake that the current administration did in leaving mid-level policy positions vacant for years on end.

Historical Note. Back in the 1980s, I persuaded the Ford Foundation to give me a grant to study the naturalization system. In those days the test was given in a different way; using only lawyers as testers (an expensive arrangement, since abandoned) with each lawyer making up his or her own test, and then deciding who passed and who failed. In some INS districts the passing rate was more than 90 percent, and in some others it was below 10 percent. Clearly a more standardized method was needed and hence the current system was created, an over-correction in my view where a milder correction was needed.

That report of mine was entitled "The Long Grey Welcome". The title related to both the long hours the applicants spent in the drab offices of the then Immigration and Naturalization Service and the visual elements of the ceremony itself when contrasted to the much more colorful (and welcoming) ceremonies in Canada and Australia.

In those days, the Canadian ceremonies always included the presence of an officer of the Royal Mounted Police in the bright red uniform and, as I recall, a bugler. The Aussie ceremonies included the presentation to their new citizens of either a handsome house plant (if one lived in an apartment) or a small tree if the new citizen lived in a freestanding house. These gifts were from members of community groups, not tax-funded.