WASHINGTON – A foreigner's chance of gaining U.S. citizenship varies depending on what office they go to which official interviews them,and the government plans to issue a new test to make the process more fair.
“The process has never been standardized,” said Mark Krikorian,executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies,a non-profit group,during a briefing Tuesday. “They vary from one examiner to the next,from one city to the next.”
To become a U.S. citizen,immigrants must meet a list of federal requirements and pass the naturalization exam. Applicants must be U.S. residents,undergo 20-minute interviews and be tested on U.S. history and English reading,writing and speaking. They also need to be familiar with the U.S. Constitution and with how the government works.
Naturalization officials learned about testing discrepancies from applicants tested for citizenship during the last few years. Some complained that other applicants were given easier exams.
One couple interviewed on the same day in the same office,for example,said their tests varied significantly in difficulty. Although both passed,one of them feared flunking if given the harder test,said Gerri Ratliff,the test redesign director for the U.S. Center for Immigration Services,the federal agency that is part of the Department of Homeland Security and manages the citizenship process.
In January 2006,members of the National Academies of Science will issue a report evaluating a new test the federal agency is writing in consultation with historians,other experts and the general public. The public will be able to comment on a draft,redesigned study guide to be published in the Federal Register late this summer.
The USCIS has set a fall 2006 deadline to begin using new tests that it hopes will treat equally all those applying for U.S. citizenship.
“We want to make very sure that we are developing the tests in a way that they'll be reliable,valid and fair,” Ratliff said.
In 2003,600,000 immigrants became U.S. citizens,and more are expected to apply this year. Applicants who fail the test can pay a fee to retake it an unlimited number of times. Because of the current backlog of applicants,however,applicants must wait about 18 months to retake the test.
The new test will vary based on each applicant's education level. For example,a test given to a high school graduate will be easier than one for someone who has a doctorate degree,Ratliff said.
“We have to come up with a system that can operate smoothly within these constraints,” she said of the number of applicants and their different backgrounds. She added that officer training “is a big part” of the restructuring.
The test's highly debated history content also will be re-evaluated,Ratliff said,because many historians and experts opine differently on what should be considered fundamental American history. So far,the Constitution,the Civil War and the civil rights movement are included on that list.
John Fonte,director of the Center for American Common Culture at the Hudson Institute and one of the experts involved in restructuring the test,said naturalization should be “much like a marriage ceremony” and that it's not enough to “simply know the concepts.”
“Our tradition has been patriotic integration,” Fonte said. “The key is that they become American.”