Biden Administration Revokes Trump Changes to Citizenship Test for Immigrants

The previous administration had made some reasonable changes, but also introduced questions based on factual errors and questionable normative assumptions smuggled in under the guise of factual knowledge.


On Monday, the Biden administration revoked changes to the citizenship test for immigrants that were adopted in the waning days of the Trump administration. The official announcement from US Citizenship and Immigration Services is here. With the exception of a few test administrations over the next few weeks (where some applicants will have the option of taking either the new or old versions of the test, in order to accommodate those who studied for the 2020 version on the expectation that it would be the one they would have to pass), USCIS is going to revert to the 2008 version that the Trump administration tried to supplant.

As I explained in this December post on the Trump revision, some of the changes made by the former administration were reasonable, including increasing the number of questions from ten to twenty, and eliminating some questions focusing on geography, while adding more about history, law, and political institutions. The latter types of knowledge are more useful for purposes of being an informed voter, which is presumably the purpose of the test in the first place. But the Trump administration also introduced many new questions that incorporated factual errors, smuggled in disputable normative assumptions in the guise of factual knowledge, or some combination of both. I went over examples of both problems in my December post.

On balance, it would have been better if the Biden administration had kept the defensible aspects of the Trump reforms, while getting rid of the biased and inaccurate questions. But if we can only have one of the two, I would say it is better to get rid of the latter, even at the cost of also junking the former. Including questions based on factual errors and disputable normative assumptions is both counterproductive and egregiously unfair, in so far as it punishes applicants who know enough to realize that the official "correct" answers are actually wrong, or who just happen to disagree with the normative assumptions behind the nonfactual questions. But, as noted in my earlier post, some of the questions on the 2008 version of the test also have significant flaws. So far at least, the new administration has not tried to fix them.

Regardless of which version of the test is used, neither Trump reform nor the Biden reversal of it address some of the deeper issues raised by the use of tests to screen applicants for the citizenship. I discuss some of them in my earlier post:

Unlike the right to live and work in a given location, the right to vote is not just a personal liberty, but also, as John Stuart Mill put it, the right to exercise "power over others." Thus, there is some potential justification for restricting the franchise to those with at least a minimal level of political knowledge. That is, at least in theory, what the citizenship test is supposed to do. And it is also the reason why we deny the suffrage to children, among others….

Despite the flaws in the current citizenship test, I am not on principle opposed to requiring would-be voters to pass a test of basic political knowledge. Voter ignorance is a serious problem, and such a requirement might potentially curtail it, at least at the margin. Even the current flawed test might still be better (or less bad) than no test at all.

But that, in turn raises the question of why it should be imposed on immigrants, but not native-born citizens. One possible answer is that we can reasonably assume that natives already know these things. But, sadly, that isn't true. Studies show that almost 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 right of citizenship, so all citizens should be given the franchise, regardless of how ignorant they might be about politics and government. But this runs into the fact that we already deny the franchise to large numbers of citizens based on their real or imagined lack of competence to be good voters: children, many of the mentally ill, and numerous convicted felons. In combination, these groups add up to a third or more of the population. If it is morally permissible to deny the franchise to incompetent (or supposedly incompetent) children, mentally ill people, immigrants, and felons, why not to ignorant native-born adults?…

Discrimination between politically ignorant immigrants and similarly ignorant natives is another example of morally arbitrary discrimination based on parentage and place of birth, on which most immigration restrictions are based. Why not just impose a knowledge test that applies to all would-be 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 come up with an objective test, as opposed to one calculated 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 seem designed to privilege more conservative answers to questions (such as the one about who members of Congress represent). The incentive for the government to "rig" 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; it includes, for example, "literacy tests" used to weed out black voters in the Jim Crow-era South. This is the main reason why I am skeptical of adopting knowledge tests as a general solution to the problem of political ignorance….

But even if they cannot be easily changed, we should at least acknowledge the morally questionable aspects of the citizenship test for immigrants. And if we are going to continue to have one, it should be more competently designed. Perhaps the people hired to design the citizenship test should be required to meet certain standards of civic knowledge themselves! To the classic problem of "who guards the guardians," we might add the issue of "who tests the testers."

I discuss a variety of issues related to immigrant voting rights in greater detail in Chapters 5 and 6 of my recent book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom.

NEXT: NSA’s pre-history turns out to be a love story

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  1. Ilya and Biden want to import Democrat voters to make the US a permanent one party state.

    1. Thank YHVH that the state of Israel has a reasonable immigration policy that serves to benefit the entire nation. Anyone can be an American and American “values” seem to change every election and new Americans can just hop the border. On the other hand, the state of Israel serves the Jewish nation and works for their best interests. Jewish blood working on Jewish soil is better than some nebulous, semi-free market zone called America.

      1. Blood and Soil, huh?
        (Given the context, I won’t use the original German)

  2. Does the test still have the part where you have to shoot ten (10) beer cans off of the top of a fence – emptying the beer cans first?

  3. Not the first time I have posted this.

    As an undergrad math major I often looked down on other students who seemed to lack the basic intelligence I thought should be required of a university student. One of my side gigs was to help physics majors with their math homework since Sad to say the situation has gotten even worse in recent times. In Florida UF and FSU are the flagship universities in the state and fully a third of incoming freshmen have to take a remedial math course; same for either remedial English or even worse for a university student English as a Second Language.

    Bottom line is several math students came up with the idea that a literacy test for voting was a good idea. It would consist of three questions; all solving a partial differential equation and going with the 60% passing rate getting the correct answer for two of them would be a passing grade.

    1. Heinlein, decades ago, proposed just requiring voters to find the roots of a quadratic equation. He reasoned that it was a straightforward challenge anybody of normal intelligence could learn to do. Requiring it would function as both an intelligence and motivation test.

      1. Just require people to click in the boxes that contain secret messages from Q.

      2. And how many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?

        I trust you remember the Jim Crow roots of that one, and why intelligence tests got banned.

        1. Sure, I do: Because they don’t tend to be honestly administered. Which in theory shouldn’t be an issue with a mechanically administered math test.

          Bit of trivia: They’re not unconstitutional, were just banned by Congress per their “time, place, and manner” power.

          But I was just relating that it wasn’t a new proposal.

    2. It’s a great idea, but unfortunately a non-starter if particular ethnic groups turned out to fail at a greater rate than others. Any bets on the likelihood of that not happening?

  4. “…several math students came up with…three questions; all solving a partial differential equation…”

    There’s nothing like leather, said the shoemaker.

    And the dominatrix.

  5. I’m delighted to see Professor Somin underscore the fact that Democrat Biden is, like Democrat Obama, going far beyond presidential norms: Biden issued 22 executive orders in first week, topping the 4 issued by Trump, the 2 issued by Democrat Clinton, and the zero issued by Reagan and Bush (W.) during the first week of the presidency of each. As David Bernstein mentioned regarding Democrat Obama’s regime, “A presidential administration can adhere to legal formalities while still undermining the rule of law.”

    To be sure, we should join Somin in underscoring each example of Biden’s dictatorial nature. But how do we properly combat Biden’s dictates?

    What if we — through Congress — want to keep the test the way it is? Should it be Biden’s individual choice or our collective choice? Or should it be Biden’s choice as sanctified by those members of the academy possessing Pauling’s triple helix?

    1. Number of executive actions is a bad metric for Presidential norms, unless you’re only in it for the bumper sticker.

      In this case – reversing past Presidential action that hasn’t yet gone into implementation – it’s hard to argue this is improper.

      Did you complain when Trump did the original executive action? Then you don’t really have standing to be unhappy now.

      1. Well, those who sued Trump have no right to nonchalantly accept Bite Me doing the same thing…

        1. If you can find someone who sued Trump claiming that Trump issued too many executive orders, I’d love to see the filings. And the dismissal for failure to state a claim.

      2. “I am not on principle opposed to requiring would-be voters to pass a test of basic political knowledge. Voter ignorance is a serious problem, and such a requirement might potentially curtail it, at least at the margin. ”
        I’m glad to know that Somin favors some voter suppression.

      3. Of course, once we look beyond the number of executive actions to the substance of what Biden is doing, it’s far worse.

  6. Looking at the questions you were complaining about, it strikes me that you were smuggling in your own normative preferences, when, for instance, you insisted on legal realism.

    It seems to me that normative preferences actually have a place in the citizenship questions, as we’re testing to see whether somebody ought to become a citizen, and good character is as much a part of that as knowledge.

    But I’m not surprised you’d disagree with that, you seem intent on treating nations as nothing more than administrative districts, with any culture or shared ethos a mere accident of no value.

    1. These are partisan normative preferences, Brett. As was gone over previously – click through to the December post

      It elides conscientious objectors, but the big one is ‘who members of the House of Representatives represent.’ This is a nativist framing.

      1. Yes, they’ve become partisan normative preferences, where they at one time were darned near universal.

        1. Yeah, we were all nativist Republicans back in the day.

        2. Nearly everything is normative. Should our Constitution be followed at all? That’s normative. Has our Constitution been followed? No, our form of government is nigh unrecognizable from what was founded, to the point that it’s almost a joke to say that the Constitution has been in effect. That’s descriptive.

      2. “This is a nativist framing.”
        Care to explain that claim.
        They are elected to represent the people in their district.

        1. “People” !=”citizens.” Therein lies the rub.

          Heck, I think the state-representation paradigm is pretty old these days – Reps make decisions for the whole country and think about what’s good for the whole country.

    2. Agreed. Somin’s nitpicking over the questions was not compelling.

  7. When you say 2/3 of voters could not pass the citizenship test, that’s just Republican voter suppression.

    How about starting with the basics of test making? Provide the reliability statistics and the validity statistics for an important test. These have been required the past 100 years. The lawyer should get with it.

  8. Biden is setting an interesting precedent for the next Republican President — who will simply re-reverse everything Biden does.

    And why isn’t Biden being sued the way Trump was?

    1. WTF?

      Do you think there’s some Soros-funded conspiracy to not sue Biden?

      You’re insane.

    2. There is no reliance in this case.

    3. Biden is already being sued by the ACLU for immigration policies.

  9. Somin: Unlike the right to live and work in a given location, the right to vote is not just a personal liberty, but also, as John Stuart Mill put it, the right to exercise “power over others.”

    There is no, “right to exercise power over others,” there is only power to exercise power over others. Understanding that is what understanding sovereignty is about. The notion of rights is antithetical to that, however useful in different context.

    Rights are about constraints—specifically, about constraints which sovereign power imposes on governments. Sovereignty is about lack of constraint. Sovereigns rule at pleasure, not according to limits imposed by charters, or at the whim of rivals. Almost paradoxically, it is that unbounded power which gives rise to, and protects, meaningful rights which can be vindicated in practice.

    Given a popular sovereign exercising rule by means of an election, the relevant voting questions have little or nothing to do with rights in the abstract, and everything to do with what wise principles of sovereign rule require. For better or worse, American popular sovereignty has decreed, in the hope of wisdom, that majoritarian power over others is a bedrock principle by which the sovereign controls American government. Elections are instances of that sovereign control.

    During elections, the People act in a dual capacity, first individually as subjects, second collectively as the nation’s sovereign. It is as subjects that their voting powers can be guarded by rights, to protect interests particular to each of them. But it is also during an election that the People act collectively, as the nation’s sovereign. Against that collective sovereign power, no principle of rights applies. An election is sovereign power exercised at pleasure, and without constraint.

    The notion of an appeal to rights against sovereign power is the stuff of constitutional crisis. That is the notion which both propelled and foredoomed the recent Trump insurrection. It is a practical fact taught by history that the nature of sovereign power requires that challenges to sovereignty be mounted on the basis of a contest of power, not on the basis of a contest of principles.

    The extent to which wise government of a nation depends on a web of established, customary principles decreed and protected by the sovereign, is likewise the extent to which wisdom precludes attacks on the sovereign itself. A power to guard such principles effectively is the rightful measure of the sovereign’s legitimacy. While that continues, so do the rights of individual persons. In a legitimate system, those most concerned about rights ought to be outspoken on behalf of guarding the sovereign power which protects them.

  10. The New Citizenship Test.

    1. Will you vote Democrat?


    Welcome to citizenship.

    1. *eyeroll* this is what the right feels. It’s a great way to subsume nativism into victimization.

      1. “nativism ”

        Is that the new dog-whistle of the left. It does sound better than “fascist.”

        1. I don’t mean it to be a dog-whistle, I mean for it to be pretty loud. It’s a type of bigotry that’s not racism.

          The post basically equates liking immigration with a Democratic scheme. Which is an awful and instrumental way to view immigrants.

  11. > “raises the question of why it should be imposed on immigrants, but not native-born citizens. … One possible answer is that we can reasonably assume that natives already know these things. But, sadly, that isn’t true.”

    No. Naturalized citizens are taught as children in a foreign system, and they need to know to abandon expectations they once had about how things work. That is the purpose of teaching and testing naturalized citizens. Yes native-born citizens may fail the test, but they shouldn’t be penalized if the education system failed them.

    1. A fundamental principle Ilya reasons from is that citizens should be treated exactly the same as foreigners, no distinctions.

  12. “Elections are instances of that sovereign control.”

    Just so. One nice feature of US elections is that they are largely administered by a small army of volunteer poll workers who witness the process.

  13. Gutless, worthless, stupid, hateful Donald Trump.

    Not only is it obvious that he couldn’t pass the citizenship test himself; he has no conception of courage, tenacity and hard work — qualities anyone has to have to move to a new country, learn its strange history and form of government, navigate the immigration bureaucracy, and show up for the test at a secure facility where they take away your cell phone, forbid anyone to come into the room with you, and might just as well put you in handcuffs and fly you back to your native country based on what they think is a deportable offense but which is actually the result of their own clerical error (I’ve seen it happen).

    1. Blah, blah, blah.
      The Orange Clown is gone, soon to be wearing an orange suit.

      1. Unfortunately not.

  14. But that, in turn raises the question of why it should be imposed on immigrants, but not native-born citizens.

    It should. But our masters, in their great wisdom, have decided that, because some Southern states used to use similar tests for nefarious purposes, they are forever tainted and can never be used by anyone, for any purpose.

  15. This discussion always reminds me of a “joke” I heard long ago.

    A black man goes to register to vote.
    The clerk asks him to read the headline of a newspaper that’s printed in Chinese.
    The prospective voter reply’s “This is one ***** that ain’t going to get to vote.”

    I count that as a correct answer.

    1. Not far from the truth, under Trump.

  16. “One possible answer is that we can reasonably assume that natives already know these things. But, sadly, that isn’t true. Studies show that almost two-thirds of current American citizens would fail even the old citizenship test if they had to take it without studying….”

    It’s because we don’t have enough government in charge of schools. We need to government harder!

    Public school system is failing us. Not failing kids who should fail though.

  17. While educated voters has been a long sought goal, it has and likely never will be the case. I am sure that a large number of voters base their election decisions on simple metrics like party, or a trusted group’s (church, union, family, newspaper) recommendation. This is essentially out sourcing the background work of picking who to vote for in the election.

  18. In 2017 the state of Florida ,implemented a K-20 civic literacy requirement. If you are a student at a public university in Florida you can meet the entirety of the post secondary requirement by taking the U.S. citizenship test that Biden has just reinstated: 100 multiple choice questions, with the questions and answers available at the USCIS website. All you have to do to pass is make a 60. This is to meet a university level requirement.

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