September 24, 2008
By KIRK SEMPLE
New York Times
A week before the American government plans to start a redesigned civics test as part of the naturalization process, a senior immigration official sought on Tuesday to calm nervous immigrants and critics who say the new exam will be more challenging than the current one.
"It's not harder than the current exam," said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the citizenship office at Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that devises and administers the test. In fact, for some it may be easier.
At the crux of the debate is a list of 100 questions that applicants will have to study to prepare for the new test, which takes effect on Oct. 1.
During the naturalization interview, an immigration officer will ask the applicant 10 of the questions spanning a range of difficulty. The applicant must correctly answer six questions to pass that portion of the interview.
Mr. Aguilar said that in a pilot study of the new questions, 92 percent of participants passed the test on their first attempt, while an average of 85 percent of all applicants pass the current test on their first attempt. (Applicants are given two chances to pass the test. Those who fail twice can reapply for naturalization immediately.
With the test's redesign, the first since 1986, immigration officials sought to move away from simple trivia and to emphasize basic concepts of American history and the structure of American government and democracy. Some questions will require a more sophisticated understanding of the United States, according to officials and immigrant advocates.
The redesign is part of the Bush administration's efforts to improve immigrant assimilation, Mr. Aguilar said.
"This is not a treatise in American history and government, but we try in 100 questions and answers to summarize the basic concepts of American democracy," he said in a telephone interview, one of a series of interviews he is conducting this week with news media in New York, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"We include what is absolutely necessary for somebody to understand what America is."
Some immigrant advocacy groups have said the test is more abstract and therefore more difficult and will unnecessarily impede some legal residents from obtaining citizenship. Some groups have even reported that fear of a harder test has spurred immigrants to file their naturalization applications before Oct. 1, which would qualify them to take the current test.
Youngsook Na, senior program associate at the Young Korean American Service and Education Center in Flushing, Queens, said that attendance at the organization's weekly naturalization clinic had doubled in recent weeks as immigrants have rushed to file their documents.
But a spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration Services said the agency had not registered a nationwide increase in naturalization applications.
In some cases, immigrant advocacy groups "may be trying to incite some people to hurry," the spokeswoman, Chris Rhatigan, said.
The redesign was the result of six years of study and consultation involving educators, historians, immigrant organizations and liberal and conservative research groups, and the questions were subjected to four months of pilot testing with more than 6,000 immigrants applying for naturalization.
The test remains just one part of the naturalization application. Legal immigrants eligible to become citizens must also pass a reading and writing test of English proficiency.
Jeff Chenoweth, a field support coordinator for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that provides support to more than 170 Catholic charities, said that a majority of advocates who closely followed the redesign were satisfied with the methodology.
Still Mr. Chenoweth said that some of the new questions included concepts or words that were more abstract or obscure than anything on the current list and would pose challenges to applicants and instructors alike.
"So while it's a challenge to new immigrants," he continued, "there is a belief among advocacy groups that it's a worthy endeavor, and it can be accomplished, and there are organizations that can assist and immigrants should not delay naturalizing simply out of fear of the test."