Though Angela Trujillo has yet to receive a date for her citizenship interview, the legal resident from Colombia is already anxious about the looming test.  At least, the 43-year-old house cleaner said, she’ll be taking the old test instead of a redesigned version that will be given to everyone who applied after October 1st.

“Its good for me,” she said about beating the deadline. “They say it has more questions and is more difficult.”

Trujillo’s instructor at La Raza Community Resource Center, Martin Steinman, said the widespread fear of the new test—which, like the old one, will evaluate English proficiency and knowledge of American civics and history–is unfounded.  But Avantika Rao, an immigration attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, wrote in an email that the longer answers demanded by the redesigned test could make the entire process more subjective, giving immigration officers “more gray areas they can use to justify denying the case.”

It’s still too early to tell who is right, but already the change has forced community centers’ citizenship classes–which in the Mission often double as English classes–to prepare students for both versions simultaneously.  Steinman predicts it will be a year before students preparing for the old test cycle out of his class.

Though there is substantial overlap in content, the new version introduces subjects such as geography, as well as more conceptual questions.  Under both tests, immigration officers ask up to ten questions from a list of 100.  The redesigned test eliminated some questions with one or two word answers such as “Who wrote the Star Spangled Banner?” or “How many stars are there in our flag?” and added questions with multiple correct answers and questions that require sentence-long answers.

“What do we call a change to the constitution?” appears on the old test, while the new test asks, “What is an amendment?”

The new question, “What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?” has five official answers, among them “Oldest Member of the Constitutional Convention”—but none mention his kite experiment or inventions.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service authorized a revamping of the oral test in 2000 to emphasize patriotism and civic learning over facts.  According to immigration authorities, 6,000 volunteer applicants piloted the redesigned test in ten cities in 2007, and the first-try pass rate was 92% compared to 84% for the old test.

“The purpose of the test is to encourage civic learning, attachment to the country,” said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services,  at a public panel in San Francisco last year.  “It is not to filter people from citizenship or to penalize them.”

As before, test-takers will have two chances to pass the test before they must reapply.

Maria Eugenia Sarti, who teaches seven citizenship classes a week at Centro Latino, said it is already a challenge for her to switch between English and Spanish in her class, let alone prepare students for the new and old tests.  Some of her students are senior citizens whose 15 years of residency qualify them to take the test in Spanish, while their younger counterparts must learn enough English to pass.

Sarti is preparing to change her teaching method for the new test’s writing portion, which like the old test, requires test-takers to write down up to three sentences dictated to them orally.  This time around, though, immigration authorities have not released a list of possible sentences.

“Some of my people did not even finish elementary school in their countries,” she explained.  “So if it is hard for them writing in Spanish, can you imagine in another language?”

The fee for citizenship applications, including fingerprinting costs, jumped from $400 to $675 in the summer of 2007—a change Sarti said has made it harder for some of her clients to apply.  Sarti, who is from Guatemala, remembers paying only about $90 when she naturalized in the early 1990s.

Still, one thing will remain the same–the formal interrogation testing loyalty to American values, including Cold War-era vestiges that ask applicants if they are a member of the Communist Party, that kick off each citizenship interview.

At Centro Latino’s Wednesday night class, Sarti asked Daisy Rojas, a home health aid from Nicaragua, to stand and raise her right hand as she fielded a mock barrage of questions.

“If the law requires, are you willing to bear arms for the United States during a time of war?” Sarti asked her student.

“Yes,” the 58 year-old answered gravely, without hesitation.

(Images Courtesy of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Office of Citizenship, Civics Flash Cards for the New Naturalization Test, Washington, D.C., 2008)

Follow Us

Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

Leave a comment

Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *