Proposed changes to assess English-language skills worry some who have passed
By Olivia Winslow
Andrés Espinosa's hopes and dreams were at stake when he sat before an examiner last year to take the U.S. citizenship test.
"It's a stressful process," said Espinosa, 47, a married father of two who lives in East Hampton and is director of finance for OLA of Eastern Long Island, a nonprofit Latino-focused agency. "A lot of things go through your head. It's because you have a life here. Your family. There are things on the line. If I give a wrong answer, everything goes to waste."
Some immigrants who have passed the test are concerned about proposed changes that would revamp the exam's speaking section to assess applicants' English-language proficiency and add multiple-choice questions.
Under the proposed changes, applicants would be asked to verbally describe three color photographs showing "ordinary usage scenery, such as daily activities, the weather or food," according to a notice in the Federal Registerby the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The current test asks applicants questions based on what they put on their application, called the N-400, to test their English-language skills.
WHAT TO KNOW
Proposed changes to the U.S. citizenship test would both revamp the exam's speaking section to assess applicants' English-language proficiency and add multiple choice questions.
Applicants would be asked to verbally describe three color photographs showing "ordinary usage scenery, such as daily activities, the weather or food."
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would perform a trial-testing period for several months this year and, if adopted, the changes would take effect late next year.
The proposed changes also would add multiple-choice questions to the civic portion of the test. Applicants must get six out of 10 civics questions correct to pass that section. The changes will undergo a trial-testing period for several months this year and, if adopted, take effect late next year.
Espinosa, to his relief and delight, passed the exam and became a naturalized citizen. Originally from Colombia, Espinosa said he came to the United States seven years ago.
The test, for him, "It's bigger than just a test. It's family. It's dreams. It's goals," he said.
Gianela Liendo Fuentes, 26, who came to Long Island from Peru with her family of four as a 4-year-old, was not nervous about taking the citizenship test, which she passed in May. That same month, she earned her master's in social work from the Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service.
"May was a good month," she said. Fuentes, who lives in Bay Shore and is a Brentwood High School graduate, also has a bachelor's degree in psychology and sociology from Stony Brook University.
"It's bigger than just a test. It's family. It's dreams. It's goals."
—Andrés Espinosa, director of finance at OLA of Eastern Long Island. Credit: John Roca
English as second language
Espinosa and Fuentes worry other immigrants who have a lower level of English fluency than them might not fare as well if the test changes.
"The problem is when you're not a native speaker [of English], you don't have language accuracy. When English is your second language, most of the time you use context to try to understand the situation," said Espinosa.
Fuentes pointed to concerns about nuances. She helped clients prepare for the citizenship test last year when she interned at CARECEN, an immigrant legal services and advocacy agency with offices in Hempstead and Brentwood. She's now a full-time social worker at the agency.
"Culture comes into play. Perspective comes into play."
—Gianela Liendo Fuentes, a social worker at CARECEN, an immigrant legal services and advocacy agency. Credit: Danielle Silverman
"Culture comes into play. Perspective comes into play" in how someone understands the test, Fuentes said. "So we kind of have to be realistic, in the fact that many of the applicants will be disadvantaged … with these new features of the exam."
Shaorui Li, chair of the Asian Association of Great Stony Brook and a member of the Three Village school board, said some members of the Asian Association are worried about the proposal. "It's mainly people who are not fluent in English," Li said. "For people like them, they are very concerned it will be difficult for any to get citizenship."
As for describing a photograph, she said, "People from different backgrounds may have different comments compared to Western culture."
Bina Sabapathy, president of the India Association of Long Island, took the citizenship test three decades ago and found it easy. How people fare on it, she said, depends "on where they come from and what education they have."
Test's high pass rate
An official for the Center for Immigration Studies, a research think tank based in Washington, D.C., which favors limiting immigration, thought the proposed changes would make the test easier. Elizabeth Jacobs, the center's director of regulatory affairs and policy, said it already has a high pass rate of about 96%, according to estimates. She advocated for a more rigorous test.
"Changing from a fill-in-the-blank to multiple choice just prompts the test-taker's memory and all answers are provided," Jacobs said. "We would prefer that a test cover more topics, more focused on American civic values," because, she said, as citizens they gain the right to vote and run for elective office.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced plans to seek about 1,500 people enrolled in adult education classes as volunteers for the trial test, slated to last five months.
Katherine Tichacek, a New York City regional spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement: "In response to stakeholder feedback, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is currently exploring trial-test options for a possible naturalization test redesign effort. USCIS will continue to engage stakeholder partners, including community-based organizations with experience in naturalization, and the agency will thoroughly review trial-test results and their impact on reducing barriers to naturalization before considering any permanent revisions to the naturalization test."
Nevertheless, Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, observed that "there are so many variables to multiple choice. I don't think there could be adequate test prep to account for that." And for the exam officer for the verbal component of the test: "How do they evaluate what is the level of communication coming back [from the applicant]? How are we grading that? And who's grading that?"
Elise de Castillo, executive director of CARECEN, said that from her perspective "the proposed changes are not going to prove an immigrant's ability to assimilate and become part of U.S. society."
Changes 'a little bit friendlier'
Vivian Hart, executive director of Pronto, a human services agency in Bay Shore whose clients include many Latinos, said of the proposed changes: "I see that as an attempt to make it a little bit friendlier." But she added a cautionary note: "We have yet to see if this is something that's going to be better than the way they're doing it now."
David Dyssegaard Kallick, director of the Immigration Research Initiative, which recently released a report titled "Immigrants in the Long Island Economy: Overcoming Hurdles, Yet Still Facing Barriers," said in an email: "I know advocates are nervous about the change," adding, "It's a potentially life-changing test. So it's important to get it right. But, on the face of it, the modifications don't seem to be so much harder or easier, better or worse. I will be eager to see the results of the trial — the devil is in the details."
Although the citizenship test was easy for Fuentes, other aspects to her journey to becoming a U.S. citizen were not. "I had to go through consular processing," which she said meant going to her home country, Peru, to U.S. embassy authorities. There were no guarantees she could get back into the United States if she didn't meet all the requirements to be granted permanent residency, which she received in 2018, setting her on the path to citizenship.
Asked why she wanted to be a citizen, Fuentes said: "I think it was a matter of survival. You just get more options as a citizen. And even when you fly internationally, you're looked at differently with a blue [U.S.] passport than with another country's passport." She now has "options for just taking full advantage of being an American citizen. I value it a lot. I'm grateful for it."