The student weekly of St. Olaf College
Manitou Messenger: Citizenship test baffles legals

Citizenship test baffles legals

By Lindsey Giaquinto
Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

In 2004, George W. Bush said that the U.S. immigration system was broken and that he intended to fix it. Whether Bush is capable of fixing anything at all is, to my mind, doubtful. However, his administration is taking steps to address the hot-button immigration issue.

Last week, federal immigration authorities released one hundred new questions to be used on the United States naturalization test. This is the first time the test has been redesigned since it was written in 1986.

Was it really time to update the questions, or does the reform reflect a new political agenda?

In the past, conservatives complained that the test was too easy. Immigrant advocates, however, protested that it was designed to obstruct integration.

As cynical as this may sound, I'm inclined to believe that the new questions led to the triumph of one interest group over the other.

Is the new test more intimidating? Or does it, as immigration officials purport, shift from "civics trivia to [emphasizing] basic concepts about the structure of government and American history and geography?"

Bush administration officials say that the test seeks to assimilate immigrants who have chosen the legal route to becoming U.S. citizens.

This seems like a valid purpose. I, however, wonder how many American citizens are "assimilated" enough to answer all of the test questions.

Let's take a look at some of the questions to see how we'd fare at St. Olaf.

Do you know how many amendments there are in the Constitution? Can you recall how many voting members there are in the House of Representatives?

Here's an easier one: why does the flag have thirteen stripes?

Well, in case you were wondering, the Constitution has 27 amendments, and there are 435 voting members in the House of Representatives. The flag has 13 stripes, which represent the 13 original colonies.

While most Oles I asked knew the significance of the stripes, few could summon enough knowledge from their high school civics classes to answer the other two questions. And I don't blame them; I couldn't answer them either.

Immigrants surely have to study the new questions to successfully answer them. It seems to me that immigrants are undergoing more intensive training to play civics jeopardy than actually learning the fundamental principles of American culture and history.

Did I mention that the test's renovation cost $6.5 million? I'm sorry, but I can't even begin to come up with an explanation for why it cost this much.

Apparently, this is a bit complicated – both for the immigrants forced to study for the test and for the bureaucrats armed with an enormous budget with which to devise the perfect new questions.

There is a new question about Sept. 11. Questions regarding slavery and the Civil Rights Movement are more prominent. The new test also highlights the women's rights movement.

But in spite of incorporating recent events and including diverse groups of Americans, the test still fails to mention the wars fought against Native Americans, and there are no questions pertaining to Latin Americans.

Wait a minute: doesn't the media repeatedly report that Latinos account for a large percentage of immigrants?

If U.S. authorities are seriously taking diversity into account, they would acknowledge the contributions of the immigrants themselves. Correspondingly, the test never refers to the continent's original habitants.

Consider this question: "What are two rights only for United States citizens?"

Who wrote that? Do they struggle to speak coherent English in Washington D.C.?,

OK, I am an English major, but any way you slice it, that sentence's construction and syntax is disgraceful and confusing, especially for immigrants who may not have complete command of the English language.

The question would be far less bewildering if rewritten as, "Name two rights to which U.S. citizens are entitled." Genius! A well constructed sentence!

The naturalization exam is designed to instill "cultural standards" in future U.S. citizens; however, current citizens can't even decipher the new test questions. Current citizens struggle to recall such trivial facts allegedly summing up our cultural identity.

How happy I am not to need to study for one more test.

The Manitou Messenger is a student publication of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. It is published weekly during the academic year except during vacations, exam periods and interim. The cost for one year's subscription is $45.00. Postage is paid in Northfield, Minnesota. Manitou Messenger
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