The Trump administration recently introduced a new and slightly more difficult citizenship test for immigrants. The 128 questions that can be used for the new test are listed here.
Some of the changes are reasonable and may be improvements over the old version. On the other hand, many of the new questions are poorly worded and contain various serious errors. Furthermore, the existence of this test (both new and old versions) begs the question of why immigrants have to pass a test to get voting rights, but not locals.
The changes to the immigration test are far less objectionable than most of the other changes to the Trump administration’s immigration policy, most of which are designed to keep immigrants out of the United States and have made the US as a whole more closed to migration than ever before. In contrast, tightening the citizenship test does not deny people the right to live and work in the United States, as all or almost anyone who is entitled to do so already has the right to live and work in the United States as permanent residents and will not be deported if they fail the test. In fact, they can even run the test again the next time they are administered. The main rights activated upon passing the test are the right to vote and the right to certain types of social benefits.
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.
Some of the changes from the old to the new test are reasonable. For example, it makes sense to get rid of questions about geography and add 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 increase the number of questions in the test from ten to twenty. With more questions, it is less likely that someone will fail or pass due to a coincidence related to the questions just selected to take the test. The fewer the number of questions, the more likely it is that a knowledgeable applicant will fail because she was unlucky, as the questions chosen for that particular administration were chosen at random from the small number to which she did not know the answer. Conversely, a poorly prepared applicant might be “lucky” if the ten questions chosen happen to be among the few with which they are familiar.
It’s also worth noting that while the new test is more difficult than the old one, it is still not that difficult. The vast majority of the questions are fairly basic, and applicants only need to get 12 out of 20 questions right (60%) to pass. That’s the same percentage as the old test (6 out of 10). As such, I am skeptical of predictions made by some immigration rights advocates that the new test will result in a sharp spike in the failure rate, although they can rightly suspect that this is what the Trump administration is hoping for.
While some of the changes made to the new test are acceptable, many of the questions are poorly designed or based on factual errors. It is especially ironic that a test designed to weed out bad potential voters contains some tremendous flaws regarding the history of voting rights. Two of the questions are, “When did all men get the right to vote?” and “When did all women get the right to vote?” In reality, it is simply not true that either “all men” or “all women” have the right to vote – until today.
Even if the relevant men and women are only adult citizens, current law continues to deny the franchise to large numbers of men and women. Most states deny significant categories of mentally ill people and many convicted criminals. These are not marginal exceptions. They affect millions of people. And of course, the franchise is being denied to millions of non-nationals of the United States as well. That is why the citizenship test exists in the first place!
In another question, respondents are asked to name a power that is “only for states”. Possible correct answers include “Schooling and Education”, “Protection (Police)”, and “Zoning and Land Use Authorization”. In reality, the federal government plays an important role in each of these policy areas. The Federal Ministry of Education funds and controls a wide range of education programs, there are numerous federal law enforcement agencies, and the federal government puts a variety of restrictions on land use – especially in the many places it actually owns large amounts of land!
I agree with the argument that the federal government has penetrated these areas far more than the original meaning of the constitution allows. The citizenship test should not, however, combine the normative debate on this issue with a matter of the current distribution of power. And even with relatively narrow interpretations of federal power under the Constitution, the federal government would have a role in each of these areas when it comes to military training, the federal territories, the District of Columbia, and federal land.
A series of questions about the test disguise normative preferences as facts. For example, one question asks who will represent the House of Representatives, and there is a similar question who will represent the Senators. The “correct” answers are “citizens” in their respective states (for senators) or districts (for members of the House). Whether members of Congress should represent all residents of their constituency or just those who are citizens is a controversial normative issue. In practice, members who represent areas with a large immigrant population often consider the interests of non-citizens in various ways. To present this as a question of fact with an obviously correct answer is wrong.
The same applies to the question why “[i]It is important that all men between the ages of 18 and 25 register for Selective Service. “One of the” correct “answers is that it is a”[c]ivic duty, “and that it [m]If necessary, the design of the fair will be taken into account. “The formulation of both the question and the list of correct answers overlooks the long history of opposition to the draft, dating back to the 19th century. There have long been those who oppose it on the grounds that the draft is a form unjust forced labor is that it is unconstitutional, that many of the wars waged by conscripts are immoral and unjust, or a combination of all three reasons. Opposition to the draft (and draft of the registry) The answer is that “the draft is fair if necessary “Overlooks the longstanding argument that the draft is unfair discrimination based on sex only for men. A recent court ruling has even ruled that it is unconstitutional for this reason, although the ruling was overturned later on on appeal.
These are by no means the only questions on the test that are based either on factual errors, the smuggling of contestable normative preferences, or a combination of both. If the federal government is to keep running a citizen test for new citizens, it should hire some people who actually know what they are doing – at least enough to avoid very basic mistakes.
Some of these flawed questions were taken from the old test (but not through the representation). But it is still a mistake to include it in the new one.
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. The percentage that would fail the new one could be even higher.
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 the right to vote to incompetent (or allegedly incompetent) children, the mentally ill, immigrants and criminals, why not ignorant native-born adults? Indeed, some of these groups (especially children) are denied the right to vote on the basis of gross generalizations of their competence which many of them do not.
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? Anyone who passes has the right to vote, and whoever fails can try again later.
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. The idea is likely to be harmful in practice, even if it is theoretically justifiable.
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.