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The 100 Naturalization Questions And How To Really Improve The Naturalization Experience

by Alan Lee, Esq.

The new naturalization test with 100 questions announced on September 27, 2007, and to be implemented on October 1, 2008, is more difficult for immigrants to comprehend, and could only improve the naturalization experience under certain conditions.

First a few words concerning the questions. The questions without a doubt are harder because a number of them present choices rather than rote answers. Our count is 61 new or rephrased questions. Of the rephrased questions, only 7 are at the same or a lesser degree of difficulty. For the elderly, the prime concern here in the 100 questions is that elderly minds are not as nimble or able to grasp concepts as younger ones. These questions will require more thought to answer correctly. On the easier test for a subclass of the elderly - persons 65 years or older who have been permanent residents for 20 or more years - U.S.C.I.S. has given with one hand and taken away with the other. The number of questions there has been reduced from 25 to 20, but the 20 feature at least 5 harder ones. It appears that 3 of the harder questions from the current test were pulled along with others, but that 8 new harder questions were put in their place.

1. The large fee collected for naturalization, $675, demands a predisposition for granting applications.

U.S.C.I.S. should be aware that its greatly expanded filing fee of $675 (from $400 to $675 on 7/30/07) is a large sum to many people, and the agency should work as hard as it can to pass the maximum number of minimally qualified applicants. People expect a positive result with such an invested amount, and adherence or deterioration or devolution to a test incorporating mostly harder questions would not be fair play and would seem like highway robbery to failed applicants.

2. Minimally qualified does not mean unqualified.

By "minimally qualified", we are not talking about totally unqualified applicants, but those who have rudimentary knowledge of English, civics and history. U.S.C.I.S. should continually train its examiners over a period of years to be patient and give the benefit of the doubt to these applicants. This training will take time, perseverance, and sense of purpose by the agency as it has unfortunately shown a propensity in the past and even now to begin adjudications on benefits in an area liberally at first and then become harder and harder with the passage of time. Although some may argue that every person who becomes a citizen should be able to serve on a jury, that is not a realistic expectation. Serving well on a jury demands at least a good grasp of English, wide vocabulary (much wider than found on any naturalization study course) and in many cases colloquialisms. These considerations should not be within the province of a naturalization test. For the other responsibility of a citizen, voting, an excellent grasp of English is not necessary to inform the individual of issues in the country given the number of ethnic language newspapers and television stations which broadcast news and diverse opinions on a daily basis.

3. The pilot test results indicate only that examiners were predisposed to granting or that volunteers for the pilot test were confident of passage.

U.S.C.I.S. stated in the press release of 9/27/07 that volunteers who participated in the pilot test achieved a 92.4% overall pass rate on the first try, and that the pass rates by test component were: civics, 93.7%; reading 99.8%; and writing 99%. As encouraging as these figures appear to be, they must be taken with a heavy dose of salt. Only volunteers took the pilot test and these were most likely the applicants with good English skills who had confidence that they could pass any test. This is borne out by not only the pass rate, but the scores on the component parts. It has been our long experience that most failures occur in the reading and writing phases of the test, thus leading us to conclude that the volunteers were already highly adept in English or that the naturalization examiners were predisposed to granting the cases.

4. The reading and writing components should indeed be centered on civics and history topics.

In its press release of 11/30/06, the agency stated that U.S.C.I.S. would provide applicants with study materials for the proposed test, to include a civics based vocabulary list, and that the list of sentences would focus on civics and history topics, rather than a list of sentences to cover a range of topics. Its press release of 1/22/07 reiterated that "The difference is that the new sentences will now focus on civics and history topics, rather than the general range of topics on the current test," and it further stated on 9/27/07 that "U.S.C.I.S. will also distribute study materials corresponding with the revised test beginning in early 2008." If all these are true, U.S.C.I.S. has an opportunity to both make the test more relevant and capable of passage to a large number of applicants. Under the current test, applicants with rudimentary English skills cannot focus their studies as there is no set vocabulary list for them to be able to read and write. Reading passages and sentences to be written oftimes seemingly fall from the sky. A set vocabulary study list if correctly administered in a test would make it easier to read a passage and write at least one correctly spelled sentence in the three chances given at interview. Again though, the fairness of the reading and writing components would depend upon how many hard words are given to write in a sentence. For example, a sentence like "The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land" would probably be acceptable while a sentence like "The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom" contains too many long words regardless of their being drawn from a focused vocabulary list.

5. The 100 questions should be asked in standard English.

If we accept the assumption that there should be more disposition to grant rather than deny naturalization applications and that applicants should not need "jury" ready English to pass, a test applicant should not be frustrated by an examiner's accent, twist of words in a test question, or speed of speech. For many applicants who spend hours upon hours of time studying for the test, it seems unfair to be failed because he or she has been listening to tapes of standard English in a clear voice with proper cadence only to be confronted by a naturalization examiner with muddy accent or who speaks quickly or who asks the same questions in different words. The applicant in these cases knows the answers, but cannot give them because he or she did not hear the questions. In this day of high technology, much can be done to allow applicants to hear the questions clearly by establishing an audio system in which the 10 test questions for the day are programmed for the examiner's machine to play back to the applicant. Such a system would probably even be considered low tech nowadays and not cost a significant amount of monies. An expansion of the audio system could also allow the 39 standard questions of the N-400 application form to be played back to an applicant. (To reduce the risk that such playback would allow an applicant unfair advantage, the numerical sequence of the questions could be frequently changed.)

If U.S.C.I.S. is truly interested in having a more accessible test with more relevance and not leaving failed applicants with a sense of being robbed of $675, we encourage it to consider the above recommendations.

2007 Alan Lee, Esq.

About The Author

Alan Lee is a 25+ year practitioner of immigration law based in New York City. He was awarded the Sidney A. Levine prize for best legal writing at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law in 1977 and has written extensively on immigration over the past years for the ethnic newspapers, World Journal, Sing Tao, Pakistan Calling, Muhasha and OCS. He has testified as an expert on immigration in civil court proceedings and was recognized by the Taiwan government in 1985 for his work protecting human rights. His article, "The Bush Temporary Worker Proposal and Comparative Pending Legislation: an Analysis" was Interpreter Releases' cover display article at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference in 2004, and his victory in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a case of first impression nationwide, Firstland International v. INS, successfully challenged INS' policy of over 40 years of revoking approved immigrant visa petitions under a nebulous standard of proof. Its value as precedent, however, was short-lived as it was specifically targeted by the Administration in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.