U.S. Citizenship Process Is Getting a History Test

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

The Bush administration yesterday unveiled dozens of new questions that may be added to the nation's naturalization test, and immigration advocates are concerned that the changes could make it more difficult for millions of legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

Immigrants seeking citizenship who now answer questions such as "What are the colors of our flag?" would be asked "Why do we have 13 stripes on the flag?" if the new questions are approved. Other queries include "Who sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S.?," "Name the writers of the Federalist Papers" and "What did the abolitionists try to end before the Civil War?"

Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that administers the exam, said the questions are part of an effort to standardize the tests, given nationwide, and increase immigrants' knowledge of U.S. history.

"It's a bold new era," said Emilio T. Gonzalez, director of the immigration agency. "We're not just giving a test for testing's sake, but giving a test which has meaning."

The agency will roll out the new questions in sample tests given to about 5,000 immigrant volunteers in 10 cities early next year, Gonzalez said. The cities include Boston; Miami; Denver; El Paso; Yakima, Wash.; and Albany, N.Y.

A notice will be mailed to applicants scheduled for an interview. It will explain the program and include a study guide. Volunteers who fail the new test can try again using the old test.

Immigrants must answer six of 10 questions correctly to pass. Officials will decide which of the 144 questions work and which do not. About 40 questions will be deleted before permanent changes are made in 2008.

Watchdog groups such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights say they are examining the process to make sure the immigration agency is not placing a heavier burden on people who use legal channels to enter the country.

"We ourselves are going to be trying this out in our citizenship classes," said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois group. Teachers will be encouraged "to see which of these questions make sense, which are too hard and which of them are off the wall."

Some of the questions are simple, such as "What country is on the southern border of the United States?" The answer is Mexico, the home country of most legal and illegal immigrants.

Others are more difficult. "What alliance of North American and European countries was created during the Cold War?" The answer is NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The new test and its questions were drawn up because "over the past 10 years . . . the standardization and meaningfulness of the naturalization test have come under scrutiny," according to a statement by the American Institutes for Research, an independent firm that helped design the pilot program.

A 1997 study concluded that the test lacked standard content, protocols and scoring mechanisms, according to the research group. Also, the immigration agency found inconsistencies in the way tests were given in its district offices. The criticism led to the formation of a panel to guide the redesign.

The agency handles 6 million to 7 million citizenship-related applications each year, 1 million of which are applications from people hoping to become citizens.

The new questions are being proposed at a contentious time for legal and illegal immigrants.

Congress is set to continue debating several bills designed to keep closer tabs on the whereabouts of legal immigrants and to make it much more difficult for them to remain in the country if they overstay their visas.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company