Immigrants test asks more than basic facts

KEILA TORRES Staff writer, CT Post

Article Last Updated: 11/15/2007 12:03:43 AM EST

Gazi Hassan and FamilyGazi Hassan

(Above, Gazi Hassan and family.)

It's no longer good enough to memorize a list of facts and figures to pass the U.S. citizenship test. Most questions now ask how and why. Gone are the questions about the amount of stars and stripes on the flag. The new list of questions focuses on the rights and responsibilities of being an American citizen. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, introduced the changes in September. The revised test, which cost more than $6 million, will go into effect Oct. 1, 2008. "The goal is to encourage people to become better citizens," said Shawn Saucier, Northeast communications manager for the agency. "The old test did not do this."

Saucier said people who come from nondemocratic countries "have to be ready to fulfill all the rights and responsibilities of becoming a citizen" and the new test provides the knowledge to accomplish this. The revised test will be administered to anyone who applies for citizenship next year after Oct. 1. Anyone who applies for citizenship and is interviewed before that date must take the current test.

People who apply before Oct. 1, 2008, but are scheduled for an interview after that date can choose which test they want to take.

Because the naturalization process can take up to a year or more to be completed, anyone who applies now may have to decide which test to study for.

Gazi Hassan, 42, of Fairfield, has been a permanent resident in the U.S. since September 2001. Hassan was granted entry into the U.S. through the United Nations as a political refugee from Kurdistan, an area that spans over several countries, including Iraq and Iran. Hassan is from northern Iraq.

He and his family applied for citizenship last year. His wife was interviewed and took her oath this summer. He, however, is still waiting for his interview to be scheduled. The agency told him they are in the process of checking his background.

Hassan, who works part time at a 7-Eleven, said not knowing when he will get his interview is a problem for him. "You can't change your address, you can't do anything. I can have a better job if I have my citizenship."

Jiyan Bedawi, also a Kurd from Iraq, said within about seven months of applying for citizenship she obtained her interview and was given her oath.

Her husband, Safwan Wahib, applied at the same time she did more than two years ago. But even though he passed his interview, he has still not received the oath.

Wahib was told, like Hassan, that he must wait for his background check to be completed.

Saucier said, in the past, the agency would try to speed up the naturalization process by conducting interviews before background checks were complete. That policy was changed in April 2006, so that an applicant can no longer have their interview scheduled before the completion of the background check conducted by the FBI. Saucier said extensive delays only occur in 1 or 2 percent of cases. Common or similar names can be reasons for delays or if information is stored in paper files that must be located and sorted out.

Besides the history and civics questions, the immigration officer also administers a revised reading and writing evaluation, which will test if the applicant can communicate properly in English.

During the civics test, applicants are asked 10 questions orally and have to answer six correctly to pass.

Each person has two attempts to pass the test. Someone who fails twice must reapply for citizenship, which means paying the $675 fee all over again.

The filing fee went up in July by about 80 percent, from $330 to $595, plus a fingerprints and photos fee, which also went up, from $70 to $80. Applicants who are in the military or more than 75 years old only pay the filing fee. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Asian American Justice Center participated in the revision of the history and civics questions.

Fred Tsao, policy director for ICIRR, said that they were not satisfied with the final product.

Tsao said the revised test contains more difficult concepts and language and a breadth of information that, combined with the fee increase, might create a "second wall" for some people to become citizens. "Compared to the old test there are also lots of new questions concerning geography," he said. "One can question whether knowing what the longest river is in the U.S. is important to becoming an U.S. citizen."

George Wu, staff attorney for the AAJC, said some of the questions were irrelevant to being an active citizen and would only serve to confuse applicants. The organizations said questions like "what is the rule of law?" were vague and confusing. Although the answers to the 100 questions are provided in advance, they were concerned that the new test would be too difficult for older, less educated applicants, who may not know English well.

Wu said that although most educated people might find the answers easy to remember, "it's a completely different experience for a person who is learning this for the first time."

Saucier said the USCIS purposely included English as a Second Language students in the pilot studies to ensure that the pass rates of this "more vulnerable" population did not decrease. More than 6,000 immigrants participated in the studies conducted earlier this year in 10 cities around the nation, including Boston. Ninety-two percent of participants passed the first time, as opposed to the 84 percent passing rate of the old test. Wu said they have yet to see the data promised by the USCIS about the role of class, race, gender and age in the studies.

Wu also said they were disappointed that the agency had not created a comprehensive education plan to help applicants study for the new test.

Saucier said the extra money from the recent fee increase would allow the agency to obtain better resources and a larger staff to make the citizenship process quicker and more efficient. Ethan Enzer, the director of the immigration office in Hartford, said the recent expansion of the field office would also increase the effectiveness and organization of the naturalization process.

The new office, which will open in February, will be about twice the size of the current office.

Naturalization ceremonies are held about 10 times a month in Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford.

According to the Department of Homeland Security Web site, more than 702,589 immigrants became U.S. citizens in 2006. More than 7,000 of those naturalizations took place in Connecticut.