Plain Speaking: Citizenship Test Must Serve America’s Interests
Nearly 1 million immigrants became U.S. citizens in the past fiscal year, the most in almost 15 years, and the third-highest number ever. How many can passably speak, read and write English? That’s hard to say.
English and civics exams are required for naturalization. And though the official test passage rate has consistently topped 91 percent in recent decades, that number comes with several caveats.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers the exams, waives the language requirement for broad categories of applicants older than 50, as well as anyone with a medical exemption. Test takers only need to demonstrate “simple vocabulary and grammar, which may include noticeable errors in pronouncing, constructing, spelling, and understanding words, phrases, and sentences.” Applicants are given two chances to pass.
Now USCIS plans to tweak the speaking section to better assess English proficiency. Going forward, a USCIS officer would show photos of ordinary scenarios — like daily activities, weather or food — and ask the applicant to verbally describe the images. In the current exam, an officer evaluates speaking ability during the naturalization interview by asking personal questions the applicant has already answered in the naturalization paperwork.
The goal, according to the agency, is to test ordinary use of English, rather than to rely on questions whose answers may differ considerably based on immigrants’ personal histories and countries of origin.
Immigration advocates worry that the new testing approach will block more applicants from gaining U.S. citizenship. That remains to be seen. But any reasonable assessment of English aptitude should be welcome.
Section 312 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires that naturalization applicants demonstrate the ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary usage in English. Yet large numbers of immigrants – including an unknown share of newly naturalized ones – lack these basic skills.
Some 22 percent of U.S. households (that’s 67.8 million, comparable to the combined population of California and Texas) report speaking a language other than English. Twenty different languages — ranging from 41,255,000 speaking Spanish to 507,000 speaking Urdu — are used in those homes.
In 2021, approximately 46 percent (20.8 million) of this country’s 45 million immigrants ages 5 and older were deemed to be Limited English Proficient (LEP).
Not all immigrants are naturalized citizens, of course, but all naturalized citizens are immigrants. Citizens, especially, need to be conversant in English if they expect to be meaningful contributors to the society and economy of their adopted land.
A recent study calculated that low levels of adult literacy cost the U.S. as much $2.2 trillion a year in reduced productivity. America doesn’t need any more of that.