Citizenship Pilot Test

Occasionally US Citizenship and Immigration Services, or INS as it was known for decades, comes up with good ideas. Earlier this week I was very pleasantly surprised with the new pilot citizenship test. On March 13, 2003 Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, as it was then known, announced that in is developing a new test to be revealed in 2004. And – voila – late 2006 the pilot program arrives!

My job has something to do with immigration, and for years I heard rumors that the new test will be multiple choice. I thought to myself, I admit, that Immigration is just the kind of service that would dumb down an already lightweight exam.

The test currently in use is a bit quaint. It survived in its original form since the early 20th century. Citizenship applicants are given a list of 100 questions to study. During the exam they are given 10 questions of the list. Seven questions must be answered correctly in order to pass. The questions, all 2nd grade level, included such jams as “Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?” “What is the 4th of July?” and “What color are the stars on our flag?” Interested individuals can look up the whole test here.

Don’t waste your time, though, these questions are an embarrassment. They are embarrassment to the country that sets its membership bar so low, that the new participants in its democracy are not expected to understand the rationale for how its political system was constructed and came how it into being, let alone value its virtues. As if we ourselves don’t value our freedom. The test is also an embarrassment to intelligent and proud immigrants who would like to show off the knowledge and prove their worth to their new homeland.

I applied for my citizenship when I was a university student, in my early 20s. Actually, it’s more like my parents applied me. I was much more concerned with impressing professors and impressing boys, not necessarily in that order. In fact, I loved to turn my immigration status into a conversation piece. “Do you want to see my pink card?” (Green cards are pink nowadays). “I am an alien, do you want to see my registration card?” (They were called “Alien Registration Cards” at the time; now a more politically correct term “Permanent Resident Registration Card” prevailed). “I am not a citizen of any country!” (Soviet Union took away my citizenship when I left in late 1989).

My parents thought of me as a big disgrace. And so, one day I found myself taking of from college for a couple of days, boarding a Greyhound bus and going to Sacramento, CA where my parent live, and where I submitted my application. I read the questions on the bus, and had no problem memorizing the answers. When I shared the questions with my dorm buddies, they remarked that many Americans don’t know the answers to some of the questions. As it happens, many immigrants love to forget them right after passing the test.

The new pilot test, on the other hand, is more in line with what a high school student would learn in his or her Government class. It’s more comprehensive and requires the understanding of basic principles of American democracy, American values and American history. Some examples include:

1. Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.

A: People are born with natural rights.

A: The power of government comes from the people.

A: The people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights.

A: All people are created equal.

30. Name one example of checks and balances.

A: The President vetoes a bill.

A: Congress can confirm or not confirm a President’s nomination.

A: Congress approves the President’s budget.

A: The Supreme Court strikes down a law.

54. What is one thing only a state government can do?

A: Provide schooling and education

A: Provide protection (police)

A: Provide safety (fire departments)

A: Give a driver’s license

     A: Approve zoning and land use

72. Who governs the people in a self-governed country?

A: The people govern themselves.

A: The government elected by the people.

Whereas the current test leaves one with a vague impression that the Civil War was all about slavery, the new proposed exam doesn’t leave a historian rolling his eyes:

109. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.

A: Slavery

A: Economic reasons

A: States’ rights

One of the questions actually explores the significance of the Oath of Allegiance:

80. Name one promise you make when you say the Oath of Allegiance.

A: To give up loyalty to other countries (I give up loyalty to my [old][first][other] country.)

A: To defend the Constitution and laws of the United States

A: To obey the laws of the United States

A: To serve in the United States military if needed (To fight for the United States [if needed].)

A: To serve the nation if needed (To do important work for the United States [if needed].)

     A: To be loyal to the United States

Some immigrants, especially the ones who come from places ripe with corruption, places where promises are broken and words are meaningless think of the oath as decor. My only grudge is with the question about the freedom of religion.

11. What does freedom of religion mean?

A: You can practice any religion you want, or not practice at all.

Whether or not the freedom of religion includes a freedom from religion is a contagious issue for many Americans. Many argue that our Founding Fathers envisioned freedom of religion as freedom for religion, see here, for instance. It would serve the Immigration well to steer clear of controversy. Instead, they should write the test in a way acceptable to the American mainstream. Perhaps or not practice at all will not make it into the final version of the exam.

One segment of citizenship applicants that is likely to lose out if the new test is implemented is the elderly who already struggle to learn English language. A new test that requires mastery of new concepts might set them back further. Nevertheless, it seems like an applicant will have to give only one acceptable answer from the comprehensive list, which is still pretty easy. Moreover, some of the new questions are actually simpler then the original version. Consider the current question where the applicant is asked to define:

19. What is the Constitution?
The supreme law of the land

And the new where one merely matches the definition to the concept:

2. What is the supreme law of the land?

A: The Constitution

Even when though the test may present a new challenge to the senior immigrants, the benefits of the new examination are much weightier. New citizens will be more in touch with political culture of our society and place more value in their American citizenship. Hopefully our country will find itself on the way to a new confidence and pride in our culture and our achievement. And a new unity. A girl can dream, can’t she?


December 3, 2006. Random thoughts.

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