Rights and Wrongs of the Trump Administration’s Revised Citizenship Test
The Trump administration recently introduced a new and somewhat more difficult citizenship test for immigrants. The 128 questions that can be used on the new test are listed here.
Some of the changes are reasonable, and arguably improvements over the old version. On the other hand, many of the new questions are badly drafted, incorporating various serious errors. Moreover, the very existence of this test (both the new and old versions) raises the question of why immigrants should be required to pass a test to get voting rights, but not natives.
The changes to the immigration test are far less objectionable than most of the Trump administration’s other changes to immigration policy, most of which are calculated to keep immigrants out of the United States altogether, and have collectively made the US more closed to migration than ever before. By contrast, making the citizenship test harder doesn’t deny people the right to live and work in the US, because all or nearly all of those eligible to take it in the first place already have the right to live and work in the US as permanent residents, and will not be deported if they fail the test. Indeed, they can even take the test again the next time it is administered. The main rights that turn on passing the test are the right to vote, and the right to certain types of welfare benefits.
Unlike the right to live and work in a given location, the right to vote is not just a personal liberty, but also, as John Stuart Mill put it, the right to exercise “power over others.” Thus, there is some potential justification for restricting the franchise to those with at least a minimal level of political knowledge. That is, at least in theory, what the citizenship test is supposed to do. And it is also the reason why we deny the suffrage to children, among others.
Some of the changes from the old test to the new one are reasonable. For example, it makes sense to get rid of questions about geography, while adding more questions about history, law, and political institutions. The latter types of knowledge are far more likely to be useful for voting purposes.
It also makes sense to expand the number of questions on the test from ten to twenty. More questions make it less likely that someone will fail or pass simply because of a fluke related to the questions that just happen to be chosen for that administration of the test. The lower the number of questions, the more likely it is that a knowledgeable applicant will fail because she was unlucky, in that the questions selected for that particular administration just happened to be chosen from among the small number she didn’t know the answer to. Conversely, a badly prepared applicant might get “lucky” if the ten questions chosen just happened to be among the few she is familiar with.
It is also worth noting that, while the new test is more difficult than the old, it still isn’t that hard. The vast majority of the questions are fairly basic in nature, and applicants need only get 12 of 20 right (60%) in order to pass. That is the same percentage as on the old test (6 of 10). Thus, I’m skeptical of predictions by some immigrant rights advocates that the new test will lead to a great increase in the failure rate, though they may well be right to suspect that this is what the Trump administration is hoping for.
While some of the changes made on the new test are defensible, many of the questions are badly designed or based on factual errors. It is particulary ironic that a test designed to weed out bad potential voters includes some egregious errors about the history of voting rights. Two of the questions ask “When did all men get the right to vote?” and “When did all
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