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US plans tough English test for immigrants
Updated: 2004-07-14 08:36

The U.S. government plans to introduce by late 2006 more rigorous testing in English language, U.S. history and civics for immigrants hoping to become citizens, the program director said on Tuesday.

Gerri Ratliff, director for the naturalization redesign project at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, told a press briefing that current tests for prospective new citizens varied widely from office to office.

"We want a test that is more meaningful, reliable and fair, focusing on concepts that will ensure that applicants will be able to function as new citizens," she said at the briefing organized by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think-tank that argues for a slowing of immigration to the United States.

Her office, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, plans to run a pilot program in several cities next year and begin nationwide implementation by the end of 2006, Ratliff said.

"We are trying to see if there's a way to revise the English test, not to make it harder, but to make it more of a defensible test of a person's comprehension skills," she said.

On history, the idea is to make applicants gain a deeper appreciation of the most important political principles underlying the United States as well as knowledge of key events such as the founding of the state, the Civil War and the civil rights movement.

In 2002, almost 574,000 people acquired U.S. citizenship. The three leading countries of origin were Mexico, with 77,000, Vietnam with 37,000 and India with 34,000.
Since 1950, the United States has required new citizens to prove their ability to speak, read and write English and to demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government.

In practice, most merely have to write one sentence in English and answer one or two questions from a list of 100 on key facts about the U.S. government.

The new English standards, which are still being developed, would include having applicants participate in a conversation, give simple directions, express needs and preferences, respond to warnings, read and comprehend simple material, describe in writing a person, object, place or situation and fill out forms such as a job application or driver's license form.

Some would like the new test to include specifically patriotic material to help inculcate love of the United States in the new citizens.

"It should foster patriotism. The P word should be right up front with no blinking," John Fonte of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, said at the same briefing.

Ratliff said those who failed the test could take it once more for the same fee. If they failed again, they would have to pay a new fee and wait several months for another chance.

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