Citizenship Classes Continue Strong
Citizenship Classes Continue Strong
If you follow the news, you likely know that one of the measures taken by the Trump administration during its final weeks in power was to decree changes to the civics test that applicants for U.S. citizenship by naturalization are required to take. Introduced in December 2020, the revised civics test would draw from a pool of 128 possible questions (up from 100 on the previous version). In order to pass, applicants would have to answer 20 questions and give the exact answer expected for at least 12 of them. After seeing revisions to the content of the questions and accepted answers, many critics regarded the new civics test as simply another step in sustained efforts by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for people born elsewhere to become U.S. citizens. (If you are curious to learn more about the two versions of the test and to try your hand at some of the questions on the 2020 revised version, you can do so here.)
Jeremy Brett is a long-time BIIN volunteer who has been teaching and coordinating citizenship classes in English since 2016. Familiar with both versions of the civics test, he had this to say:
Some of the changes made to the civics test in 2020 were good, in the sense that they made for better worded questions or questions that helped students learn new things because they were more oriented towards U.S. history and government. But some of the new questions or answers were clearly more from a right-wing perspective — like the one about the 10th Amendment, because states’ rights is a right-wing cause. Or the question, ‘Who does a senator represent?’ The acceptable answer was changed from ‘all the people of the state’ to ‘the citizens of the state.’ Under Trump, there was a pretty deliberate attempt to suppress the number of people applying to become U.S. citizens, and I have no doubt that the motivation behind these changes [to the test] was to make it more difficult for applicants to become citizens.
Regardless of the motivations, the change in policy posed a problem for organizations like BIIN. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), a federal agency overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, typically produces and distributes a range of materials for non-profit organizations to use in helping applicants prepare for the civics test and other aspects of the application process.
However, given all that was (or was not) happening during the transition from the Trump to Biden administrations, it seemed unlikely that updated materials would be available through USCIS by the time that BIIN’s spring classes were slated to begin. Realizing this, citizenship program leaders and interns got to work in early January 2021, revising the PowerPoint presentations, student handbooks and other materials they use in class, to reflect the requirements of the new test.
Non-profits like BIIN often rely on curriculum guides and flash cards provided by USCIS to help applicants prepare for the civics test and other parts of the naturalization exam.
Niki Nguyen, a TAMU student and one of two interns assigned to the citizenship program for the spring 2021 semester, took the lead in revising BIIN’s materials. As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and a U.S. citizen by birth, Niki embraced the chance to take a deep dive into the immigration process, understanding how consequential the test could be for people’s lives. Comparing the two versions of the civics test (2008 and 2020), Niki identified the differences and then set out to update BIIN’s master curriculum manual week by week, making changes and incorporating new content. Once revisions had been made to the English version of PowerPoints and student handbooks, Niki’s fellow intern, Geraldy Morua, translated them into Spanish. As Niki explained, “I reviewed the manual in its entirety multiple times, to catch any mistakes before we sent it off to be printed. Although it might seem like a daunting task, I genuinely enjoyed revising the materials and gaining a far deeper understanding of the naturalization process and what is necessary to pass the civics test.” So far, so good. However, on February 22, 2021, just as Director Jaimi Washburn was going to pick up the new student handbooks from the print shop, word came through a USCIS “Policy Alert” that the Biden administration had decided to reinstate the 2008 civics test. This meant that for a short time, applicants would have a choice of taking either version of the civics test, but for people who submitted applications to USCIS after March 1, 2021, the 2020 version would no longer be available. This decision too, along with other changes in immigration policy, has been perceived as reflecting the new administration’s efforts to be seen as taking a “more humane” approach to immigration.
Regarding this policy change, Jeremy Brett observed, “I was surprised and relieved when the Biden administration changed the rules about the civics test. I had thought this would be far down on their list of priorities, but right off the bat, they changed it!” Despite the work that the interns had put into updating the program’s materials, Niki was inclined to look on the bright side: “I don’t believe that my work and efforts have gone to waste, because I learned so much about the naturalization process and things that applicants need to know.”
Given this change, what then would happen for students whose classes at BIIN were beginning in late February? A quick survey of registered participants was made, and while those who had submitted their applications to USCIS between December 1 and March 1 were offered the option of preparing for either test, the overwhelming majority chose to focus on the 2008 version. As Niki noted, “It’s completely understandable that they preferred the shorter test. I would have too!”
With this bit of drama (and the considerable effort it required to prepare new materials) behind them, BIIN’s citizenship team — long-time volunteer instructors, interns, and a crew of committed volunteers — launched spring classes on February 27. The ten-week sequence is offered both in English and in Spanish, and meets via Zoom for two hours on Saturday mornings or afternoons. So far, attendance and participation in both sections have been good. When asked what is important for BIIN’s supporters to know at this juncture, Jeremy Brett responded: “We want people to know that BIIN’s citizenship classes are still going on, despite the pandemic. Preparing for the naturalization exam is an important process. It’s one of the most significant things that students in the class will do. It can really change their lives in so many ways.”
Along with Jeremy, Niki, Geraldy, Spanish lead instructor Rich Woodward and so many others who have invested in BIIN’s citizenship program, we are heartened to see that neither the pandemic nor the shifts in federal directives regarding the civics test have put a damper on people’s desire to learn about this country’s history and government, and as members of local, state, national and international communities, to do their part to make democracy work.
If you too think this is valuable work, consider making a donation to support the citizenship program at BIIN, or signing up to volunteer to help during Saturday sessions via Zoom. We also invite you to watch for another installment in this series on BIIN’s support for prospective U.S. citizens, coming in April.