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What Should an American Know?: The new naturalization: dumbed down and deleterious

Immigrants seeking citizenship are required to pass a test on U.S. history and government. Here are five sample questions, drawn from the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s list of 100 recommended possibilities: What are the colors of our flag? Who was the first president? Who is the president today? What are the two major political parties? How many states are there?

It’s not exactly the stuff of a doctoral dissertation, or even a high- school civics class. It’s the sort of thing we’d expect an ordinary ten-year-old to know. And yet the INS doesn’t expect immigrants pursuing naturalization to know even this much. Its test-taking guidelines suggest that they need to answer only 60 percent of the questions correctly — that’s three out of the five listed above (though they often face a total of ten). In a lot of schools, a score of 60 percent translates into a letter grade of D minus. One lesson many immigrants learn from this process is that their new country really doesn’t expect a lot of them.

That’s a shame, because naturalization is a glorious instrument of American democracy. The whole experience of it — leading up to an oath in which immigrants firmly renounce their political attachments to other nations — ought to infuse new citizens with a sense of duty, loyalty, and responsibility. To a certain extent, it does: A citizenship ceremony is one of the most moving events in public life, with participants remembering it the way other Americans remember graduations and weddings. In recent years, however, naturalization has come to resemble nothing so much as a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Bush administration’s recent proposal to split the INS in two.


On a fundamental level, restructuring makes sense. Probably no other government agency has a worse reputation than the INS, and this was true long before it issued flight-school visas to a pair of the September 11 hijackers six months after the attack. Eight years ago, the New York Times printed an extensive series of exposes on the INS and was forced to conclude — in a news article, not an editorial — that it’s “broadly dysfunctional” and “perhaps the most troubled major agency in the federal government.” If anything, problems at the INS have only grown more severe.

The Bush administration proposes replacing it with a pair of separate bureaus within the Justice Department. One would concentrate on enforcement (Border Patrol, etc.), with the other focusing on something called “services.”

What is an immigration “service“? It is any kind of benefit the INS might bestow on an immigrant, such as a green card or a work permit. The term also includes one of the federal government’s most important functions, granted to it by the Constitution: determining who may gain U.S. citizenship. To the restructuring proposal, however, service is a calling unto itself. The 40-page document detailing the reorganization contains 81 references to “services” and 24 to “customers,” but only 4 times does it mention “citizens” and never does it use the word “citizenship.” “There is no discussion of the importance of citizenship or civic obligation,” says John Fonte of the Hudson Institute, who did the counting.

For anybody who has had the misfortune of dealing with the INS, service is no small thing. It can take more than a year for the agency to process a form. INS waiting rooms are famously frustrating places. Some offices shut down every other Friday because lenient civil-service rules allow full-time federal employees to take the time off.

There is clearly a need to improve the basic performance of the INS, but the reorganization proposal loses sight of the fact that the immigration service is not just any federal entity. Immigrants applying for citizenship are not “customers” seeking a “service” — they are Americans in the making, and INS employees work in the service of the whole country when they determine which immigrants will be granted the privilege of citizenship. In the world of business, it makes sense to treat customers with deference, and the INS certainly ought to treat immigrants with respect; but the mindset of regarding immigrants exclusively as customers encourages bureaucrats to eliminate all obstacles in the way of providing a service.

It also invites corruption. During the Clinton years, the INS came under extraordinary pressure to approve as many citizenship applicants as possible in the shortest amount of time, on the assumption that many of these new voters would support Democrats. Douglas Farbrother, an aide to Vice President Gore, described in a memo his plan to “produce a million new citizens before election day” in 1996. One of the ideas involved “lower[ing] the standards for citizenship” and specifically a “more liberal” interpretation of the standards surrounding the already laughably easy test on history and government. (To its credit, the INS appears to have fought off some of these political machinations. The agency did grant citizenship before the 1996 election to about 180,000 immigrants without making them undergo the required FBI criminal- background check, but this was probably a routine example of INS ineptitude.)

How the citizenship test could be made much easier is difficult to fathom. Among the requirements for citizenship is that the immigrant must possess “a knowledge and understanding of the history, and of the principles and form of government in the United States.” To comply with this requirement, the INS has developed its list of 100 questions. Some offices require scores of higher than 60 percent to pass, but even the six-out-of-ten standard isn’t always maintained.

Standard,” in fact, isn’t really the right word. As a December 2000 INS memo states, “officers must review each set of questions to determine if the list

contains questions that are too complex or advanced for the applicant, taking into consideration . . . the applicant’s education, background, age, length of residence in the United States, opportunities available and efforts made to acquire the knowledge.” In other words, if a question like “What are the colors of the flag?” is just too hard, then naturalization officers are encouraged to dumb it down.

In truth, most immigrants do very well on their citizenship tests. The pass rate is high — upwards of 90 percent — and perfect scores are common. But that isn’t saying much when the list of 100 potential questions is a commonly circulated document. It’s available on the INS web page, and everybody involved in naturalization has a copy. When immigrants study for the test, they’re studying the test itself, as if it were a cheat sheet. They don’t learn anything substantive; they simply memorize a set of trivia. It’s worth knowing, of course, that George Washington was the first president — but it’s even better to know why he’s first in the hearts of his countrymen. The INS does virtually nothing to ensure this happens. “There’s not a thing about that test that teaches American values,” says Greg Gourley, who runs New Americans of Washington, a consultancy near Seattle that helps immigrants fill out their INS paperwork and prepares them for naturalization.

The whole culture of citizenship education is misguided. Last year, the Department of Education earmarked $21 million to infuse adult English- as-a-second-language classes with civics instruction. The grants were passed out to the states, and in California, the World Without War Council (which is not leftist, despite the name) sought a small grant to create a program that would have introduced immigrants to the ideas of the Founders. Its application was initially turned down, and then approved with strings attached. As Brigitte Marshall of the state education department explained to the group in an e-mail last July, “Adult learning research demonstrates that adult learners at the lowest levels of literacy in their own languages may encounter severe challenges when it comes to consideration and treatment of abstract and value laden concepts.” These “abstract and value laden concepts,” of course, include such highfalutin notions asall men are created equal.” Marshall insisted that ESL classes focus instead on “immediate and pressing life needs.”


Nobody disputes that ESL students need to gain a functional understanding of everyday English, but the refusal to include any civic content in their education is mystifying. It gets back to the INS “service” mentality. Providing instruction on how to open a bank account is useful and worth doing — a kind of “service” — but must it occur in the complete absence of patriotic Americanization? By zeroing in on the perceived needs of students, the INS and ESL educators ignore the needs of the country.

The old Americanization Movement, which committed itself to the assimilation of the Ellis Island generation of newcomers, was deeply involved in citizenship education. It held classes, printed booklets, and sponsored lectures aimed at helping immigrants understand what it meant to be American. Many of these activities were funded privately, especially by business, but state and local governments also played a strong role. In the 1990s, the Seattle INS office ran a pilot program that briefly revived that bygone spirit. Immigrants who enrolled in citizenship classes at community colleges were allowed to complete their naturalization at the end of their course — a step that in some cases saved more than a year that would otherwise have been spent waiting. Coursework focused on passing the citizenship test, but it was impossible for immigrants sitting through ten weeks of instruction not to learn far more than the answers to 100 simple questions. The INS inexplicably cancelled the innovative program, citing bureaucratic delays and costs (even though students paid their own tuition).

The defunct Seattle project should be revived and turned into a national model; and the citizenship test itself should be reformed. In addition to answering a set of simple questions, perhaps immigrants should be made to memorize the oath of citizenship they speak at their naturalization. They could also be required to know the Pledge of Allegiance, or some other simple statement, such as the preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, or an excerpt from the “I Have a Dream” speech.

The most innovative idea of all is to remove the power of awarding citizenship from INS bureaucrats. “The current test reflects a thin and liberal definition of citizenship,” says Harry Boyte of the University of Minnesota. He proposes convening panels of citizens, drawn from the general population like juries, to determine which immigrants deserve citizenship and which do not. Instead of grading multiple-choice tests, members of the panel could ask direct and open-ended questions. What does it mean to be a citizen? Why do you want to be one? Why do you deserve citizenship? Naturalization law says that immigrants must not only understand the principles of American citizenship, they must also be attached to them. Are they? Answering this question requires subjective judgment, and there’s no reason to think INS employees are better able to exercise it than ordinary Americans.

Immigration policy has been dominated by elites and special interests ever since the 1965 law reopened the United States to massive admission levels — something it wasn’t intended to do, and something its supporters promised would not happen. Allowing ordinary Americans to become involved in the naturalization process through citizen panels won’t fix that, but it would confer a vital responsibility on the public, which hasn’t had much say in the immigration debates.

These are flag-waving days. If the naturalization process can’t be improved now, it won’t ever be improved. What reformers need is a public champion, a person who can speak persuasively on the patriotic necessity of assimilating immigrants, just as Teddy Roosevelt used to do when he stumped for Americanization.

Is John McCain looking for something to do?