Starting this winter, questions will center on American ideals rather than historical facts.
To gain American citizenship, immigrants must be able to answer such questions as: What was the 49th state added to our Union? What color are the stars on our flag? And who wrote the Star Spangled Banner?
Sound trivial? The US government thinks so, and plans to roll out a new pilot test this winter.
It will continue to be an oral test, conducted in English, and will have 10 questions. Six correct answers will earn a passing grade. But the content, which is tightly under wraps, is expected to shun simple historical facts about America that can be recounted in a few words for more explanation about the principles of American democracy, such as freedom.
The changes raise the bar – critics say too high – for immigrants to show not only that they care enough to study for a test, but also that they understand and share American values. Behind the shift is rising anxiety among Americans about high levels of immigration and European troubles with large, unassimilated communities, say observers.
"Whenever there is a large number of immigrants, people talk about having an assimilation policy," says John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank in Washington. "We've always had an Americanization policy of some type [but] we haven't so much in the last 20, 30 years.... I'd see this as continuing that tradition, which Europe did not do."
Immigrant advocacy groups are wary of the changes, which coincide with a review at the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency that is expected to call for a substantial hike in the $400 citizenship application fees.