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It's the exam that fails: how the INS citizenship test misses the point.

How the INS citizenship test misses the point

As a young man in Ethiopia, Binyam Tamene was not exactly the silent type. "I thought the world was free, and I was saying things openly," he remembers. The Communists then in power weren't quite so progressive. They arrested Tamene and imprisoned him along with many of his friends. A good number of them were killed, but Tamene survived and found refuge in the United States. So when the INS officer administering Tamene's naturalization exam asked him what the benefits of U.S. citizenship were, lofty thoughts of freedom and democracy came rushing to mind. But Tamene had been forewarned that as far as the local INS office was concerned, that's not what American citizenship is about. So he bit his tongue and gave the answer he'd memorized from the INS' study materials: "Being a U.S. citizen will get me a U.S. passport, make me eligible for federal jobs, and allow me to bring over relatives" He aced the test.

Tamene's answer may have made a mockery of his emotional decision to renounce his homeland and seek full membership in our society, but his instinct to play it safe was a wise one. According to U.S. law the INS must ensure that citizenship applicants demonstrate "a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, and of the principles and form of government, of the United States.' However, INS headquarters in Washington allows its officials in the field tremendous discretion in assessing those qualifications. It is up to each individual examiner to decide what and how many questions to ask at a candidates interview, how many questions the candidate must get right to pass the test--and what constitutes a right or wrong answer.

As a result, the citizenship exam can often be either unconscionably hard, or laughably easy. Immigrants who land an unforgiving examiner are simply out of luck. "I know of people who were asked difficult things like, `What's the 13th amendment' or, What's the 26th amendment,'" says Mary Ellen Ros of the New York Association for New Americans. One INS examiner in Baltimore was notorious for asking the question, "What was the last federal holiday?" Immigrants who failed to provide the correct answer--Martin Luther King day--automatically failed the entire test. Perhaps the most harrowing incidents are those uncovered by Juan Jose Guttierez of One Stop Immigration in Los Angeles: "I've documented cases where INS agents have asked such questions as, `What's the name of Gov. Pete Wilson's wife?' `What's his birth date?' or Who were the commanding generals at the Battle of Gettysbute.'" Civil War buffs might protest that the answer to the latter question is a vitally important historical fact. But even they must concede that denying citizenship to someone just because he doesn't know it is a wee bit draconian.

Of course, the system's arbitrariness often works in applicants' favor. "Many examiners make the test easier or more difficult based on who they're interviewing," explains Ros. Thus while the occasional well-educated immigrant has been quizzed on such esoterica as, "At what stage in the writing of the Constitution did the idea for a bill of rights first come into play?" less sophisticated applicants are often let off with brain teasers like, "What are the colors of the American flag?" and, "Who is the current president?" Sympathetic interviewers also often coach immigrants who give a wrong answer on their first try. For example, says Ros, "there have been situations where the INS officer says, `Can you name three states?' and the person names two states and a city, so the examiner says, `Can you name another state?'" Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of immigrants pass the history and government test. Though the INS does not have firm statistics, it's estimated that only 10 to 20 percent fail.

This has led right-wing critics like Georgie Anne Geyer to charge that the INS is opening our national gates to a flood of barbarians whose failure to assimilate will end up balkanizing the nation. Immigrant advocates counter that the current system can still be too tough on immigrants. But both sides are ignoring the real problem. Regardless of whether they are too hard too easy, almost none of the questions asked in the citizenship exam touch on what immigrants really need to know in order to become responsible participants in our democracy. What does it matter, for instance, whether an applicant has been able to memorize that the length of a senator's term is six years if the applicant doesn't understand why senators must periodically come up for reelection in the first place?

Since the time of the founding fathers the whole point of allowing, and indeed encouraging, foreign-born residents to naturalize has been to ensure that these newcomers will help sustain--and not undermine--our democratic system of government. So why does the INS citizenship exam test for knowledge that is so irrelevant to this goal?

The trouble is that no one at INS headquarters ever sat down and developed the citizenship test in a thoughtful and comprehensive way. That's because for years the INS has been extremely decentralized. Until recently the agency's regional Commissioners were actually political appointees--many of whom openly questioned the authority of the national commissioner in Washington. So it's no wonder that after Congress introduced the civics and history portion of the citizenship test, INS head-quarters simply issued a two-volume textbook on the subject and left it up to its 33 district offices to figure out how to check that applicants had mastered the material within.

By the early 1990s a number of critics were grumbling that the citizenship exam was completely arbitrary--varying widely from both district to district and individual examiner to examiner. So the directors of many district offices began casting about for a way to make their tests more standardized. That's when they hit upon the list of 100 questions. The list had been developed in the late 1980s by two INS agents to provide some guidance to private companies developing a history and civics course that illegal immigrants were allowed to take in order to become legal under a special amnesty law then in effect. (The illegals also had the option of taking an INS administered test based on the list.) Although the 100 questions on the list were derived from the material in the INS' history and civics textbooks, they had never been intended to serve as an appropriate measure of an applicant's qualifications for citizenship. But in the absence of anything better, many INS district directors instructed their examiners to choose their questions off of the list of 100. Duke University immigration specialist Noah Pickus points out the absurdity of this: "The citizenship test is largely shaped by material developed for illegal immigrants by two INS folks practically over the course of a weekend."

This helps explain some of the quirkier questions that often get asked as part of the citizenship test. For instance, according to David Rosenberg, Director of Program Initiatives at the INS, the question "What is the 49th state of the Union?" was included on the list of 100 not because anyone thought this was crucial information that every would-be citizen should know, but because "this fact was in the last few pages of the INS textbook [that illegal aliens taking the special course would be using]--so it's just an old teacher's trick to make sure they go through the whole book."

Another problem with basing the citizenship exam on the list of 100 is that since the list was never designed for that purpose, not all of the answers on it are accurate. "One of my attorneys was at an INS interview with a client at which the examiner asked, `How many amendments are there to the constitution?'" recalls Mary Ellen Ros. "Our client answered 27--which was correct. However since that last amendment had been passed fairly recently, all of the INS materials say there are 26. So the examiner marked our client wrong, and when our attorney tried to correct him the examiner got furious."

Finally, while the widespread adoption of the 100 questions may have made the test a little more predictable within many district offices, across districts there is still tremendous variation in terms of the number of questions an applicant is asked and the number he must answer correctly in order to pass.

To their credit, the district directors who adopted the 100 questions were at least taking a stab at introducing some consistency into the system. And that's more than could have been said for INS headquarters. However, there is some hope on the horizon. At her confirmation hearings current INS Commissioner Doris Meissner indicated that she was deeply disturbed by the chaotic and irrelevant nature of the naturalization process, and she is clearly committed to reforming it.

Unfortunately, Meissner's early efforts were overtaken by more pressing concerns. Around the time she took office, the number of applicants for U.S. citizenship jumped from several hundred thousand per year to over a million--forcing the INS to scramble to process both the new influx and the rapidly accumulating backlog of applications. In its haste, the INS failed to conduct adequate criminal background checks on 180,000 immigrants to whom it had granted citizenship--prompting a public outcry, congressional investigations, a proposal to scrap the INS (currently being considered by the White House), and a justice Department-mandated rehaul that is now in progress.

The good news is that as part of that rehaul the INS is looking to completely redesign the citizenship exam by the end of next year. To begin with the test will be standardized across all districts. In addition it seems likely that-rather than having individual officers administer it orally, the test will be given in a written form similar to that of a number of standardized citizenship tests already developed by several testing companies. The question of what is on the test will also be revisited. Many academics and immigration advocates are already piping up with their suggestions. A recent conference on the subject hosted by Noah Pickus at Duke generated a myriad of recommended questions ranging from, "Name one difference between the Republican and Democratic parties" to, "What did President Kennedy mean when he said, Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country'?"

This seems the ideal opportunity to have a thoughtful public discussion about what we think even the most poorly educated new citizens should know about our nation and our democracy--and by extension what we feel citizenship really means. Unfortunately, the public is almost totally unaware of the big changes to the citizenship exam now underway at INS. As for INS officials, they appear leery of opening up the issue to a wide-ranging debate, fearing that this may bog down an already slow-moving process. Instead, says David Rosenberg, the INS is leaning toward using the history and civics standards set for high school students by the recent Goals 2000 initiative as its guide. Ironically, all too many American kids may fall short of those standards. A recent Department of Education study of student achievement in American history found that 57 percent of U.S. high school seniors had failed to attain even the "basic" level of achievement. Which raises a question that those who advocate against naturalizing more foreigners may want to focus on instead: Just how well are we preparing native-born Americans for citizenship?
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Title Annotation:US Immigration and Naturalization Service
Author:Aizenman, Nurith C.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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