In the US, as in many other nations, the final hurdle for a non-citizen to fully politically integrate into the nation state is the naturalization process. Half of this is comprised of a lengthy application and interview and half consists of a citizenship test. The test requires most applicants to be fluent in spoken and written English and have a firm grasp of some US history and civics. Despite its imperfections, citizenship is the best way for migrants to be protected from constant government oversight and the possibility of removal. Naturalization is a political act—it involves attaining the rights and protections afforded to citizens. The test is a barrier to political integration because it excludes some people from those rights and protections. That is why it needs to go.
The test dates back to the nineteenth century. In those days, judges administered the test orally and the process varied wildly from location to location. The law did not require literacy or knowledge of American history and civics, although some judges thought that an applicant could prove that she was “attached” to the constitution by demonstrating knowledge of its principles. In the early twentieth century, the Federal Bureau of Naturalization began to standardize the process, moving towards a set of questions that supposedly demonstrated this “attachment,” rather than requiring the mere memorization of facts. Attachment is a nebulous term that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has interpreted as meaning that someone is not “hostile to the basic form of government of the United States.” Even in its current form, it’s hard to understand how exactly the test could show this.
The slightly altered purpose of the current test, according to a USCIS spokesperson, is “to ensure America’s newest citizens have mastered a basic knowledge of US history and have a solid foundation to continue to expand their understanding as they embark on life as US citizens.” But reciting how many years a US president can serve does little to demonstrate either lack of hostility to the form of government of the US or civic engagement. In addition, the test is riddled with historical, legal and civic errors. As one Pro-Publica journalist puts it, you don’t have to be factually correct: “Just give the official answer and you’ll do fine.”
These gaps between the official and the correct answers suggest that rote recitation demonstrates little other than an aptitude for rote recitation. If certain specific knowledge is essential to civic and political participation, that knowledge would surely need to be factually accurate. If the test measures attachment to certain guiding principles, to gauge that attachment you need to ask the correct questions.
More problematic still: roughly two-thirds of Americans cannot pass the test. My review of the published statistics on pass rates over the last decade shows that 90% or more of migrants consistently pass the test. While these rates do not measure the number of cases that are approved, most of those who pass also attain citizenship: in the first three quarters of 2020, USCIS approved 484,407 citizenship applications and denied 62,849: only 13% of those it adjudicated.
So if the test itself doesn’t measure much at all, is it simply a hurdle designed to test the applicant’s commitment? After all, migrants seem to be doing just fine on the test, errors and all. There are medical exceptions for those who can prove that they lack the capacity to learn English or answer the required civics and history questions. On the whole, it is up to the applicant to demonstrate that she deserves citizenship. The problem is that we should instead ask why anyone should be excluded for failing to meet the requirements. This is exclusivity disguised as merit, and it is unjust.
Discrimination against migrants takes many forms. Migrants are not eligible to vote, and if they attempt to do so—even by accidentally registering to vote, for example—they can be permanently barred from citizenship and even deported. There are limits on the kinds of family members migrants can bring to the US (grandparents are excluded, for example). With only a few exceptions, migrants cannot become elected officials. Most significantly, non-citizens can be removed from the political and social body altogether at any time. If naturalization is a political act, removal is a kind of anti-political one: our politics is maintained through exclusivity. The test is a tool for keeping certain people out, rather than letting them in.
This is an issue of justice: of who gets to decide who the we are in “we the people”? By focusing on a set of largely arbitrary requirements, the test fails to answer this question. In some crucial respects, noncitizens have no say in deciding their own treatment. This is the antithesis of John Rawls’ just society in which social and political relations are mutually agreed upon and of what Rainer Forst calls the right to justification: “the right to be respected as a moral person who is autonomous,” who cannot be treated capriciously. The reasons governing people’s treatment must be reciprocal and general: the makers of the rules may not demand for themselves what they deny to others. For Forst, there is a basic, core right to be treated as an moral end in oneself. Barriers to citizenship go against these principles.
Take, for example, the differences in pass rates between US born and non-US born citizens. Migrants are more likely to pass the test than US native. Should we therefore strip the US-born of their citizenship, if they fail the test more than twice? This would affect tens of millions of people and would especially impact people of lower socioeconomic status, who already lack access to learning materials and educational opportunities and are falling behind on literacy. No reasonable group of people should construct a barrier to full political participation and protection that applies double standards to themselves and others. In its double standard, the test is akin to the literacy and property requirements that historically disenfranchised black, brown and poor white voters in the south. All the test does, then, is maintain certain power relations. This would remain true even if all migrants passed the test.
The test arbitrarily determines who gets to take part in the political process on the basis of where they were born and who their parents were. Those whose rights are most affected lack any say in its use as a tool of exclusion. That is why the present citizenship test would always be illegitimate, even if everyone had to take it. Non-citizens would never be allowed to co-author it—they are excluded from participation in determining the barriers to citizenship by the very fact that they are non-citizens. As Forst argues, in all social and political relations, we must ask not just who gets what, but who gets to decide such things, who is included in the decision-making body.
A commitment to and understanding of a particular set of principles may be necessary for US politics to function. But the citizenship test does not determine whether or not a person understands or is committed to those principles. Are all those who were born in the US attached to the constitution—even if they can’t pass the test? Were the Capitol Hill rioters attached to the constitution? Even if a person’s attachment to certain political principles could be demonstrated by her familiarity with certain facts, that neither guarantees that she will remain attached to those principles, nor that those principles themselves are valid. The constitution itself has been amended more than once and may be again. That a person can recite some facts demonstrates nothing at all.
The hurdles we require migrants to clear before they can become citizens suggest not only that the test is flawed but that our concept of citizenship is, too. That is a much more difficult issue to tackle. However, we can start by removing one immediate barrier toward a more just politics. The citizenship test needs to go.