Homeland Security announced Monday that it is canceling the use of the new citizenship test the Trump administration developed and will go back to the test created in the Bush years.
The move is the latest by the new Biden administration to wipe away Trump-era immigration changes, and delivers yet another victory to activists who’d called for a clean-slate approach.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Homeland Security agency that oversees naturalization, said it believes the Trump test may be too tough to pass, echoing complaints by immigrant-rights groups.
Those same groups had complained in 2008 when the Bush administration implemented its updated test, but the Biden team now says that Bush test is the gold standard.
“The 2008 civics test was thoroughly developed over a multi-year period with the input of more than 150 organizations, which included English as a second language experts, educators, and historians, and was piloted before its implementation,” the agency said.
The test, which most applicants for citizenship must complete in full, asks potential citizens to study a list of questions. On the day of the test, they must answer 60% correctly.
The Bush-era test had 100 study questions, and applicants were asked 10 questions, meaning they had to get six correct. The Trump-era test has 128 study questions, and applicants were asked 20, meaning they had to get 12 correct.
USCIS didn’t immediately have a response to a request for comment on what the passage rate for the new test has been in the early going.
But Robert Law, who served as chief of policy at USCIS under President Trump, said he was told by a career official that it was “nearly identical” to the older version.
That, he said, undercuts the Biden team’s assertions that the new test is a barrier to citizenship.
“It’s clearly just an irrational politicization and animosity to anything that came out of the Trump administration,” said Mr. Law, who is now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Alfonso Aguilar, the man who oversaw the 2008 Trump test’s development, said it takes a catechism approach, with would-be citizens learning about their new country as they prepare for the test.
He said activists at the time complained that his test was too tough and would keep people from passing. But passage rates instead remained high, at above 90%, because migrants took the test seriously and studied for it, he said.
“So, no one should be concerned that applicants will not have a meaningful learning experience if they have to study for the previous test,” Mr. Aguilar said. “But it’s absurd and condescending to applicants to say that the Trump administration’s test was much harder and a barrier to citizenship.”
He added: “This is the typical argument of leftist advocates, many of whom would actually prefer that naturalization applicants not be tested at all.”
Mr. Law said scrapping the new test was an insult to the career staffers who wrote the new test. He said “nearly everybody” involved in the 2008 version was still at the agency and worked on the new test, too.
“So it was basically the band got back together to restart their work,” he said.
“This was an all above-board process, this was not politically driven to deny an otherwise eligible applicant from naturalization,” Mr. Law said. “This was just to make the test more meaningful.”
The Trump-era test was supposed to be used by anyone who applied after Dec. 1.
The Biden administration says people who have applied over the last two and a half months, who presumably have been studying for the new test, will be able to choose whether to continue with that one, or to go back to the Bush test.