Citizenship Education in a Time of Transitions and Insurrection

US Capitol Building
By Bill Bliss

January 2021 was already going to be a time of transitions for our programs that prepare immigrants to become naturalized citizens. In addition to updating the answers to some civics test questions to reflect recent election results, we need to prepare for a transition to a new version of the civics test that poses challenges for our students and programs. And then came the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which demonstrated to many of our students the precariousness of the system of government they are learning about and the sudden fragility of some of the basic facts they need to know for the test, including the system of checks and balances among three branches of government, and the rules of presidential succession.

The Transitions: A New Administration and a New Civics Test

Every U.S. election can result in changes in answers to some of the civics questions for naturalization, which ask students to name the President, the Vice President, the Governor of their state, their Representative in Congress, the Speaker of the House, and one of their state’s U.S. Senators. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website offers a link with updates for the federal offices. For example, after the inauguration on January 20, the site will let us know the multiple ways students can name the new President, which will likely include Joseph R. Biden, Jr, Joseph Biden, Joe Biden, and possibly just Biden. (A link to the USCIS test update page is here.)

The greater transition challenge this year is the major revision of the civics test of U.S. history and government knowledge. The test is significantly more difficult and lengthier than the current version, which requires applicants to answer correctly six out of ten questions from an item pool of 100 possible questions. The new test requires applicants to answer correctly 12 out of 20 questions from an item pool of 128 possible questions. Many of the new questions are more difficult, use more complicated vocabulary, or are provoking controversy regarding their content. In addition, while the old test stops as soon as applicants answer six questions correctly, the new test requires applicants to answer all 20 questions regardless of whether they have already answered 12 correctly. This will potentially increase the amount of time that USCIS officers need to administer the civics portion of the exam and thereby result in longer and fewer interviews per day, further exacerbating the agency’s backlog in processing citizenship applications.

Given these concerns, many education programs, advocacy organizations, and others have submitted comments to USCIS calling for the new test to be rescinded or delayed until it can be further reviewed by the new administration. (My recent article describing issues with the new test is available here.) As of this writing, there has been no change in the policy, and the new test is required for all students whose citizenship application filing dates are December 1, 2020, and after. Students who filed prior to that date will take the old test. So unless there is a policy change, our citizenship education programs currently need to prepare students for two different sets of civics questions depending on their application dates. And since USCIS regional offices vary widely in their appointment backlogs, programs around the country will experience different percentages of students needing to prepare for the old and new test versions.

Here are some resources that show the comparison between the old and new sets of civics test questions:

A listing of the old test questions (with a comparison to the new questions) is available here.

A listing of the new test questions (with a comparison to the old questions) is available here.

A Voices of Freedom unit-by-unit integration of the old and new test questions is available here.

If you would like to provide comments or suggested edits to USCIS regarding any of the new test questions, you can send them to naturalizationtestrevision2019@uscis.dhs.gov.

The Insurrection

The attack on the Capitol on January 6 has had a profound impact on many of our immigrant students, whose reactions have ranged from shock and fear that an insurrection could occur in the United States, to a wary familiarity with such events from their experiences in their countries of origin. For many students in our civics classes, the principles of democracy and the stability of the government institutions they are studying are beacons of hope lighting their pathway to citizenship. Many cite the rights and responsibilities of citizenship as the fulfillment of a dream as they prepare to take the oath of allegiance at their naturalization ceremonies.

But many know too well from their home countries how fragile government institutions and people’s rights can be. Ironically, while one of the most important aspects of attaining citizenship is for our students to eventually be able to have relatives join them in the U.S. through family immigration, many students were hearing from those family members after the events at the Capitol to check on their safety and the stability of the United States.

When considering these events through the eyes of our students, it is also important to acknowledge that many of them have experienced the effects of growing anti-immigrant sentiment over the past few years, and many are in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting recession. These students’ motivations for acquiring citizenship therefore also may include the goal of increasing their safety and acceptance in the country as well as safeguarding their lives and livelihoods.

The challenges our students may be facing coupled with uncertainty surrounding the recent events may result in their having lots of questions, concerns, and a need to share during instructional time. Whether you are offering citizenship instruction or general English language instruction, and whether you are currently meeting with students remotely or in a classroom, here are links to some resources you may find useful for incorporating lessons or conversations about the U.S. Capitol insurrection:

“What Happened During the Insurrection at the US Capitol and Why?” – a resource from Facing History and Ourselves, is available here.

“Three ways to teach the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol” – a lesson plan with videos from the PBS Newshour, is available here.

“Lesson from an Insurrection” – interviews with 15 instructors about how they and their students have responded to the events, from the education news site The 74, is available here.

A “January 6, 2021 Resource Guide” – from the New York City Department of Education, is available here.

I am currently preparing an article on how immigrant students view the January 6 attack and invite you to share any writing about this by your students. If a student would like to have her or his photo included and give permission, please send any submissions to: bill.bliss@languageandcommunication.org.