On Monday, the Biden administration revoked changes to the citizenship test for immigrants that were passed in the final days of the Trump administration. The official announcement from US Citizenship and Immigration Services is here. With the exception of some test administrations over the next few weeks (where some applicants will have the option to take either the new or old version of the test to accommodate those who have studied for the 2020 version in the expected anticipation of USCIS being upgraded to the Fall back in 2008, which the Trump administration attempted to replace.
As I explained in this December Trump revision post, some of the changes made by the previous administration were appropriate, including increasing the number of questions from ten to twenty and eliminating some geographic issues while adding more about history and law became and political institutions. The latter types of knowledge are more useful for being an informed voter, which is presumably primarily the purpose of the test. However, the Trump administration also posed many new questions that included factual errors smuggled into controversial normative assumptions under the guise of factual knowledge or a combination of both. I discussed examples of both problems in my December post.
All in all, it would have been better if the Biden administration had retained the defensible aspects of Trump reforms and eliminated the biased and imprecise issues. But if we can only have one of the two, I’d say it’s better to get rid of the latter even if the former is also scrapped. Inclusion of questions based on factual errors and controversial normative assumptions is both counterproductive and immensely unfair, as it penalizes applicants who know enough to realize that the official “correct” answers are, in fact, wrong or simply not correct the normative assumptions agree behind the non-factual questions. As mentioned in my earlier post, some of the 2008 trial questions also have significant flaws. At least so far, the new administration hasn’t tried to fix it.
Regardless of which version of the test is used, neither the Trump Reform nor the Biden Inversion of the test will address some of the deeper problems raised by using tests to verify applicants for citizenship. I discuss some of these in my earlier post:
In contrast to the right to live and work in a specific place, the right to vote is not only a personal freedom but also, as John Stuart Mill put it, the right to “exercise power over others”. Hence, there is a possible justification for restricting the right to vote to those who have at least a minimum level of political knowledge. At least in theory, that’s what the citizenship test is supposed to do. And it is also the reason why, among other things, we deny children the right to vote …
Despite the shortcomings in the current citizenship test, I am not fundamentally against the need for potential voters to pass a basic political knowledge test. Voter ignorance is a serious problem, and such a requirement could potentially at least marginally limit it. Even the current failed test might be better (or less bad) than no test at all.
However, this again begs the question of why this should be imposed on immigrants but not on native citizens. One possible answer is that we can reasonably assume that natives already know these things. But unfortunately that’s not true. Studies show that nearly two-thirds of current American citizens would fail even the old citizenship test if they had to take it without studying.
Perhaps the answer is that voting is an inherent civil right, so all citizens should be given the right to vote, regardless of how ignorant they are of politics and government. However, this means that we are already denying a large number of citizens the right to vote because they are actually or supposedly unable to be good voters: children, many mentally ill and numerous convicted criminals. Combined, these groups make up a third or more of the population. If it is morally permissible to deny incompetent (or allegedly incompetent) children, mentally ill people, immigrants and offenders the right to vote, why not ignorant native-born adults? …
Discrimination between politically ignorant immigrants and similarly ignorant natives is another example of morally arbitrary discrimination based on ancestry and place of birth on which most immigration restrictions are based. Why not just impose a knowledge test that applies to all potential voters, regardless of whether they are immigrants or natives, children or adults, mentally ill or not?
One possible answer to this question is that we cannot trust the government to produce an objective test as opposed to one that aims to weed out opponents of the party in power. This problem is already evident in some of the Trump administration test questions discussed above, which appear to be designed to favor more conservative answers to questions (e.g., who are members of Congress representing). The incentive for the government to “manipulate” the test would be even greater if it applied to all potential voters, not just immigrants. The history of voting tests is not a happy one; These include, for example, “literacy tests,” which are used to weed out black voters in the southern Jim Crow era. This is the main reason I am skeptical about adopting knowledge tests as a general solution to the problem of political ignorance.
But even if they can’t be easily changed, we should at least acknowledge the morally questionable aspects of the immigrant citizenship test. And if we still want one, it should be designed more competently. Perhaps the people charged with designing the citizenship test should have to meet certain standards of citizenship knowledge themselves! To the classic problem “Who is watching the guards?” Could we address the “Who is testing the testers?” Add.
In Chapters 5 and 6 of my recent book, Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, I will discuss in greater detail a number of issues related to immigrant voting rights.