Sunday, September 30, 2007

citizenship exam

Last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released the new civics component of the citizenship test, to take effect in about a year. The new test is said to de-emphasize rote learning, and a pressing question for many in the immigration debate is: Is the new test harder than the old one? If so, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people may be stuck in the legal limbo of permanent residence, where the risk of indefinite detention and deportation never fully disappears. To help answer this question, USCIS published a question-by-question comparison (pdf) between the old and new tests. Not every question in the new test had a direct parallel in the old test. Here are a few examples:

Current Test

New Test

Q11. What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?

61. Why did the colonists fight the British?

Q72. Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.

48. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

Q87. Where does freedom of speech come from?

Q93.What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?

12. What is the “rule of law”?

23. Name your U.S. Representative.

49. What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?

Some of these questions are pretty difficult. I studied law for three years and I would not have been able to answer Question 72 on the current exam: “Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.” Apparently there are four of them—who knew? The comparable question on the new exam is much more sensible.

Or: “Where does freedom of speech come from?” “The First Amendment” or “the Bill of Rights” would be plausible responses. But one could just as easily say something like, “Freedom of speech, in the American context, comes from a long Anglo-Saxon civic tradition culminating in the importation of French and Scottish Enlightenment ideals into U.S. charter documents, followed by two centuries of wrangling between the judicial and legislative branches over the permissible limits of individual expression.” One might discuss the protections given religious expression in Europe as moveable type led to religious fragmentation, bloody conflict, and later secularization. One might even ask the questioner to clarify whether her question was located strictly within the European historical frame or whether she would like a broader cross-cultural exploration of the foundations of free speech. I don’t know whether all that would be on the answer sheet, but it’s a pretty open-ended question.

“What is the rule of law?” Whew, that one is a doozy. Volumes have been written, and remain to be written, about the rule of law.

We see that the writers of the previous exam thought the flag was really, really important. Seven questions have now been whittled down to just one:

Current Test
New Test

Q1. What are the colors of the flag?

Q2. What do the stars on the flag mean?

Q3. How many stars are there on our flag?

Q4. What color are the stars on our flag?

Q5. How many stripes are there on our flag?

Q6. What do the stripes on the flag represent?

96. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?

Q7. What colors are the stripes on the flag?

What I am curious about is how many lifelong U.S. citizens would pass this test. This would be a ripe area for an enterprising immigration advocacy group that could get funding for some simple survey research.

My wife proposed a question be added to the exam, as USCIS seems to have overlooked a critical aspect of U.S. history:

“What is a badonkadonk?”

“Is pimpin’ easy?”

New citizens will have a tough time navigating American life without knowing the answers to these basic questions.

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