USCIS Ombudsman Office issues recommendations on administration of the English speaking test

many stakeholder concerns are substantiated

Last year, immigrant stakeholder groups met with the USCIS Ombudsman Office to voice concerns about the way English speaking proficiency is assessed as part of the citizenship test. We also explained why we believe the proposed new test design would unfairly impact certain vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with limited formal education.

A new Ombudsman report has just been released, and it reflects many of these concerns. Here are some highlights:

  • ."Upon hearing stakeholder feedback, it appeared to the CIS Ombudsman that the proposed redesign had the potential for creating rather than reducing existing barriers faced by some to achieving this milestone."
  • The CIS Ombudsman recommends that USCIS: 1. Stop the practice of using questions from Part 9 of Form N-400 to assess an applicant’s understanding and speaking of English and use instead the personal information requested in Parts 1 to 8.
  • ...and allow applicants to use translation and interpretation services during the naturalization interview if: 1) the applicant has passed the understanding and speaking English test, and 2) the interviewing officer finds that the applicant does not understand the questions related to unusual and complex eligibility issues.
  • ...officers nationwide, even within the same field office, do not ask applicants the same questions, and some officers ask applicants to define words or phrases found on the Form N-400.The additional clarification of terms and key concepts provided by officers can be inconsistent. This appears to give officers substantial discretion in how they determine an applicant’s ability to “speak and understand English” and may lead to inconsistent passing rates among officers and field offices.
  • The fail rate [for the understanding and speaking test] at the following field offices is almost more than double the average: ? Buffalo (10.6 and 12.2 %) ? Detroit (11 and 11.9 %) ? Imperial (10.4 and 10.4 %) ? Indianapolis (11 and 12.7 %) ? Louisville (19 and 19.6 5) ? Miami (12.5 and 12.9 percent) ? Oklahoma City (10.8 and 12.1 %) ? Omaha (10.5 and 11.8 %) ? Providence (18.6 and 18.6 %) ? San Juan (25.2 and 25.1 %).
  • The English language assessment does not seem to take into consideration that an applicant can understand a language before they can speak it. The officer can be satisfied that the applicant fully understands the question, but the applicant can still lack the vocabulary and grammar structure to provide a meaningful response in English but may be able to in their native language. An interpreter could bridge the gap.
  • USCIS instructs officers that applicants are only required to have a basic understanding of the English language,134 but officers may inadvertently require more from applicants as a result of the questions they ask. An applicant’s ability to respond to any of the questions on Form N-400 is relevant to the assessment, but some of the questions require a higher level of understanding of the English language than what is statutorily required. For example, the personal information questions, about the applicant’s name, age, birth date, country of birth, and address in Parts 1 to 8 of the Form N-400 are simple questions and the type of questions and answers that are taught in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. In contrast, although the questions in Part 9 mostly require a simple yes or no response, they are complex for the level of language skill required for naturalization.
  • [the USCIS website offers] cards and practice exercises on commands, as well as reading and listening activities using words and phrases from the Form N-400 that applicants may hear during the interview, but none of these resources define or describe terms such as genocide, totalitarian, terrorism, vigilante, human rights, communism, deferred adjudication, or drug paraphernalia—all words used on the form.
  • [USCIS] provides officers with a list of optional rephrased questions developed in consultation with ESL experts. The agency encourages officers to use the list to ensure more fairness across all interviews but has not shared this list of rephrased questions with the public.
  • While the idea behind USCIS’ most recent attempt to redesign the test has merit, the execution has not been transparent, especially in articulating why the current testing process is insufficient.

The Ombudsman can only make recommendations--it does not have the power to change regulations. But this report demonstrates that stakeholder concerns have been heard, and USCIS would be wise to heed them.

See the full report (especially pages 20-27) here: