Francisco Menjivar has spent months memorizing answers to civics questions like, "Who wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner?' " (Francis Scott Key) and "How many voting members are in the House of Representatives?" (435).
He knows answers to most of the 96 questions and isn't about to put that hard work to waste. So the 52-year-old Salvadoran immigrant from Norwalk made sure to send off his naturalization application early this week, before the deadline to apply for citizenship and still take the old test.
Today, the federal government will start phasing in a new citizenship test that emphasizes American concepts and values over rote memorization.
Open-ended prompts asking applicants to describe what the Constitution does or what the "rule of law" is, for example, replace more pointed questions like, "What were the original 13 states" or "Who said 'Give me liberty or give me death?' "(Patrick Henry).
But the much-publicized switch to the new exam has caused anxiety and uncertainty among some immigrants, and advocacy groups have noticed an increase in applications among legal residents who fear that the new test will be more difficult.
"Even though we've known about the possible change for quite some time, it's really sinking in now, and some people are panicking," said Mark Yoshida, staff attorney for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Citizenship officials said there is no evidence of a measurable increase in applications and that immigrants who study for the exam should have nothing to worry about.
The exam is not harder, only more meaningful, said Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, citing scores on a pilot program that showed 92% of applicants passed the new test on the first try compared with 84% under the old one. Those who don't pass the first time get a second chance.
"Instead of asking what are the colors of the flag, now we're asking why does the flag have 50 stars or 13 stripes" he said. "It's more concept-oriented rather than just memorizing random facts. If people study, they should pass. From our perspective, we wouldn't gain anything by having a harder exam."
The overhaul, the first time the test has been retooled since 1986, took two years. Applicants will be given 10 of the 100 questions and must answer six correctly to pass. They are also required to read and write basic English sentences that focus on civics and undergo an interview to complete the process, which ends in a naturalization ceremony. A backlog in processing applications means that the average person applying for citizenship today will wait 10 to 12 months before being tested.
In recent weeks, some elected officials have urged immigrants to apply before today's changeover to make sure they can take the old test.
Although naturalization applications are dramatically down over last summer, when they surged before the fee increased from $400 to $675, some immigrant advocacy groups say they have seen a preference for the old test among immigrants who have already studied and feel more comfortable with the old questions.
"Most people have wanted to take the old test," said Ana Bastida, director of programs for the Mexican immigrant association el Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamerica. "Every time there's something new, it's seen as another barrier."
The old exam was sometimes ridiculed for focusing on minutiae over historical and political concepts. There were seven questions on the colors of the flag and even a question on the name of the naturalization form itself (N-400).
But the new exam has its potential flaws too, including questions and answers that are open to interpretation.
For some, the changes in the exam raise an old fear: that immigrants could be denied citizenship based on the whims or prejudices of the examiner, a problem until the test was standardized more than two decades ago.
Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC, called the new test a "step backward" for that reason.
"There's latitude in answering the questions and that's where the problem lies," he said. "There's potential for abuse and not knowing what to prepare for."
Rosalind Gold, a senior director with the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said she planned to keep a close watch on how the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the new test to see if passage rates really are higher and if any problems are reported.
Others expressed concern about teaching prospective citizens about the new questions.
In recent weeks, state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), who represents central Orange County, home to a large immigrant population, has urged residents to apply in time to take the old test, fearing that the transition to the new exam would be hampered by a lack of teaching materials.