Language Requirements for Citizenship

Naturalization without an English language test

By Glen D. Wasserstein

The reason immigrants to the United States most commonly give for not becoming citizens is the language barrier. Along with showing a basic knowledge of U.S. history and government, applicants for citizenship are required to display an ability to read, write and speak ordinary English. Older immigrants, however, should be aware that there are exceptions to this rule.

Under current immigration law, an immigrant can petition to become a U.S. citizen after five years of lawful permanent residence, or three years if their permanent residence has been based upon marriage to a U.S. citizen. However, an alarmingly high percentage of these immigrants do not become citizens when they become entitled. In 1999, the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed 14,000 people and concluded that an estimated 47 percent of documented immigrants who had been here at least 10 years had not become U.S. citizens. Inability to speak English is the primary barrier.

The English proficiency requirement especially affects the elderly, keeping many older immigrants from ever filing for citizenship. Most of them don't know that there are special rules for older immigrants who have lived here as permanent residents for certain periods of time.

Two Exceptions to the Language Rule

Immigration law provides for two age-based exceptions to the English proficiency requirement:

  1. Citizenship applicants who are over the age of 50 on the date of filing for naturalization and have lived in the United States for a total of at least 20 years as a permanent resident, or

  2. Citizenship applicants who are over the age of 55 at the time of filing and have lived in the United States as permanent residents for at least 15 years.

These older immigrants do not have to display any knowledge of the English language in order to become U.S. citizens. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) tests these applicants on basic U.S. history and government knowledge in their native languages.

Additionally, applicants with physical disabilities such as deafness and blindness are not required to display any English proficiency.

Written Tests No Longer Given

Today, naturalization no longer requires written tests. These tests often frightened older immigrants who were not accustomed to taking standardized tests. Instead, they are currently tested by interview. Applicants are usually asked between eight and 15 questions from a list provided to them. They must correctly answer 70 percent of the questions in order to become citizens. Approximately 80 percent pass on the first attempt and 50 percent on the second try.

These rules and procedures make it easier for many older immigrants to finalize the "American dream" by becoming U.S. citizens. However, through a basic lack of information, many older immigrants do not know that these special rules exist for them.

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