You probably can’t pass the US citizenship test

And other ways we can improve our immigration process

The Fourth of July brings fireworks, cookouts, and a lot of red, white, and blue. For many of the approximately 850,000 people who became citizens in 2018, this will be their first Independence Day as full citizens. That number of new citizens also marks a five-year high, which should give everyone cause to celebrate.

Don’t challenge any of these new US citizens to a contest about American history or the US government — odds are that you’ll lose. A national survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only one out of three US citizens could pass the test required to become a citizen. That’s an embarrassing and revealing fact about the average US citizen.

To pass the test, potential citizens must correctly answer six out of 10 questions asked by an interviewer. Those 10 questions are pulled from a list of 100 and include a variety of topics in American history and American government. To get a sense for what types of questions are asked, take a practice exam on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) website, or here are a few of the questions:

Q: What is the name of the President of the United States now?

A: Donald J. Trump

Q: What is one reason colonists came to America?

A: Freedom

Q: When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?

A: July 4, 1776

If you did well on these three, congratulations! You’re halfway to passing. But do you know how many amendments the Constitution has? Do you know who was President during World War I? The fact that so few people who were born citizens could pass should make you consider why this is even required. If most Americans don’t know the answers to these questions and yet remain productive members of society, then why should immigrants?

This test is only one component of the larger immigration system which can take years to navigate as an immigrant. A few simple improvements to the immigration process could fix a lot of these issues.

How complicated is the immigration system?

Immigration Road, a website devoted to providing information about the United States’ immigration and citizenship process has a flowchart depicting how to obtain a green card.

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Green Card Flowchart, Immigration Road.

In large part, the flowchart speaks for itself. Those who want to legally immigrate to the US face a Kafkaesque path towards citizenship or legal residency. Immigration Road estimates that it takes between five and 15 years to navigate these steps and receive a green card. They also note that applicants who want to become citizens too should add five to seven years to that estimate. For some people, however, that wait is even longer.

Removing the per-country green card cap simplifies the immigration process

David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, blogged about USCIS data last June that showed the wait time for an Indian immigrant with an advanced degree to receive a green card had reached 151 years. That wait time emerges because of per-country limits on green cards. All countries get the same number, regardless of their population. Individual wait times may move faster, depending on the applicant’s characteristics. For example, if the applicant has family in the country, they may move more quickly through the system. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the backlog for a country as populous as India is just about two lifetimes.

As Bier points out, most of these issues could be resolved if immigration rules were updated to remove the caps or at least index them to population. That could simplify the immigration process for immigrants and US businesses alike. For individual immigrants and their families, it would mean less time spent oceans apart as other family members are able to immigrate. For US businesses, it would make it easier to hire the best talent that they can find, regardless of where those people call home. Right now, companies have to take into account if a potential hire will be able to join them in the US because of our outdated immigration rules. That makes US-based companies less competitive, and it makes everyone poorer since would-be workers aren’t in the US, improving our lives with their skills and services.

There are perennial efforts to implement this kind of reform in the US. For example, Senators Kamala Harris and Mike Lee introduced a bill to remove the per-country cap in February of 2019. In 2016, Virginia’s Representative Bob Goodlatte proposed reforms to specific parts of the green card program as well. Efforts like this are exciting and essential parts of immigration policy discussions in the US. But figuring out how to help immigrants with extensive training and skills is only part of the problem. Many of the people moving to the US are leaving their homes under completely different circumstances.

Refugees need different policies

Not everyone coming into the US does so through a green card process. That means that the flowchart from Immigration Road is a complicated map of only part of the immigration system. Many people fleeing their homes in South and Central America, for example, are headed to the US primarily for safety, not just economic opportunity.

An important point here is that although the legal rules make clean definitions and divisions between economic migrants and refugees, it’s not that simple in reality. As immigration reporter Dara Lind wrote in June,

In practice, though, it’s often hard to determine a single reason that a given migrant is leaving — much less a group of hundreds of them, or a monthly flow of tens of thousands. The same people facing dire poverty can also be persecuted by their governments for their political views; someone might decide to leave because their crops are failing, but decide when to leave based on a threat to their lives.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of apprehensions of families at the southwest border that clearly depicts this conflict. Take the story of Nelson Landaverde and his family. He left Honduras out of safety concerns for his family, but Nelson also wants to provide for his family, both while he waits in Tijuana for his asylum application to be processed and once he’s in the US. Does Nelson’s desire to work in the US make him an economic migrant or does his desire to leave an unsafe country make him an asylum seeker?

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Photo: Associated Press. Nelson Landaverde, left, and two other people working at a car wash while waiting for their asylum claims to be processed.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), an immigration think tank based in Washington DC, has suggested some simple changes to policies to deal with people like Landaverde more efficiently. One promising option is allowing the Department of Homeland Security’s asylum officers to fully decide whether or not a migrant or family of immigrants meets the criteria for asylum. These officers already do a credible fear interview where they evaluate whether or not asylum seekers meet the criteria for asylum under US law. Then the Department of Homeland Security officers hand the immigrants off to immigration judges to determine the case.

As Doris Meissner and Sarah Pierce of MPI argue, empowering existing Homeland Security officers by adjusting the asylum application process would mean that “final determinations could be made within months, not years, in a nonadversarial, less resource-intensive setting than before judges in courtrooms.” Effectively, this change would remove unnecessary red tape from the immigration process while the Department of Homeland Security’s officers could still refer more difficult cases to immigration judges.

Rising levels of people applying for asylum after arriving at the southern border make it vital that the screening process speeds up. As data from the MPI shows, the number of apprehensions spiked to new highs since 2012. Detention centers for those waiting for processing have become overcrowded, and reporting indicates that supplies for basic hygiene are in short supply.

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Monthly apprehensions at the southern border from 2012 to 2019 compiled by MPI.

More people, more fireworks

Asyou enjoy your Independence Day celebrations, think about the 850,000 new Americans and the process that they went through to earn their citizenship. But don’t forget the people who are waiting in line for years to even start their lives here. Policymakers should be pursuing changes like removing the per-country cap and eliminating unnecessary judicial proceedings. Both of these are small improvements that will bring more people into the US, whether they’re workers at US businesses or refugees fleeing dangerous homes.

Improving the immigration system will mean that next July 4, there could be even more people celebrating the fireworks and fewer people waiting in line for citizenship.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.