Originally Published in The New York Times
Opinion by Maeve Higgins - November 30, 2020
Take it from me, a noncitizen, there is much to learn from the naturalization test, one of the final hurdles an immigrant must clear to become a citizen.
It’s pretty tough actually, particularly the new and expanded version of the civics test that is to go into effect on Dec. 1. To those of us living under The Stephen Miller School of Exclusion, this is one more barrier to an immigrant’s quest to live here. The questions and answers are online now. I’ve been practicing in a variety of American accents.
The latest test has 128 civics questions about American government and history. Just getting to take the test usually means you’ve made it through an obstacle course involving reams of paperwork, thousands of dollars in lawyer and government fees, years of legal residency, a biometrics appointment and an English proficiency test. The questions come in the form of an oral test where an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.C.I.S., asks the would-be citizen to answer 20 of the 128 civics questions; if she gets 12 right, she passes. After that, all she needs to do is pick up her paperwork. Then she can pledge allegiance to the flag and decide which season of “Real Housewives” to watch to truly understand this complex nation.
The latest test is a jump from the current one, which requires you to study only 100 questions, and answer 10 of them, with 6 correct answers, to pass. The Trump administration has left almost no part of the immigration system untouched. It made changes large and small, from thundering bans of entire nationalities to insidious but potent administrative changes like this one. However innocuous some changes may seem, they illuminate the end goal: curbing legal immigration.
As with many Trumpian ideas, the seeds were there all along. The Naturalization Act of 1906 first decreed that citizens-to-be must speak English, and while English is not the official language of the United States, most immigrants today still have to pass an English proficiency test. The civics test is carried out only in English.
I’m a native English speaker, but I still find some questions difficult to understand. And unlike the study guide online, the questions are not multiple choice. That means that one day, if I get to take the test, I will have to try to keep a straight face as I look into another human being’s eyes and try to answer the question, “Why is the Electoral College important?”
Some people have an easier ride. If you are 65 or older and have 20 years of permanent residency under your belt, you are required to answer fewer questions. This makes me feel better about the substantial errors made by the 66-year-old senator-elect from Alabama, Tommy Tuberville. In an interview this month in The Alabama Daily News, Mr. Tuberville got the three branches of the federal government wrong and misidentified the reason the United States fought in World War II. To be fair, Mr. Tuberville played football for a long time. It is my understanding that this extremely American game involves repeated bashes to the head, one of which is bound to knock out some civics knowledge.
Speaking of senators, one of the more sinister changes to the civics test is the answer to the question, “Who does a U.S. Senator represent?” The only acceptable answer has been changed from all people of their state to citizens of their state. I’m just a person, not a citizen. Am I not worthy of representation? There was a whole kerfuffle about taxation without representation back in the day, I believe.
Simone Hanlon Shook is worried about these changes. “It’s just really punitive to people that don’t have advanced degrees and it’s not in their first language,” she told me. She said she was not worried about passing her own test when she took it on Oct. 7. It was the shorter and simpler one. Plus, she is a high school history teacher. Originally from Ireland, Ms. Hanlon Shook lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and in past years used the U.S.C.I.S. questions to quiz her high school students as she waited her turn to take the real thing. “The idea was: if you weren’t a citizen, would you pass this test? And a lot of them wouldn’t.”
Her turn finally came during a pandemic, so the U.S.C.I.S. officer brought her into a room with an iPad, and then he went to the room right next to hers and conducted the interview virtually. She got 100 percent of the questions right and on Oct. 23 she was presented with her citizenship papers and a small American flag during a drive-through ceremony in a parking lot beside the Albany airport. The next day, she told me, she voted in the presidential election.
One day I hope to do the same, so I’m taking practice questions when I can. This one caught me out. “What is Alexander Hamilton famous for?” He’s famous for his cool ponytail and for being a breakout star on Broadway, right? Wrong. Apparently he’s famous for being “one of the writers of the Federalist papers.” Not sure what those are, but they sound serious.
Another one is “Name one example of an American innovation.” Voodoo-flavored Zapp’s chips spring to mind, as does unearned confidence. However, neither is included in the list of acceptable answers. Instead: light bulbs, skyscrapers and landing on the moon.
Hernan Prieto is the citizenship program coordinator at Irish Community Services, a nonprofit in Chicago that provides immigration and social services to immigrants of any nationality in the Midwest. Part of his job is preparing immigrants for the civics test. Unlike Senator-elect Tuberville, his students usually get the question about the branches of government right. They are also familiar with some of the names on the test, he told me. They know who Martin Luther King Jr. is and why he is important. Dates trip them up, though.
A green card holder from Argentina, Mr. Prieto hopes to apply for naturalization next year, and he told me he appreciates what he learns alongside other immigrants. Most crucially, studying civics informs would-be Americans of what they stand to gain and what they need to give if they hope to live up to this nation’s earliest motto. They learn that motto too; it’s “E Pluribus Unum” or “Out of many, one.” They learn that equality is promised by the Constitution, that nobody is above the law and that it is a civic duty to vote.
Mr. Prieto treasures that knowledge, but is not convinced that the test itself is helpful. “I don’t know that we need to have a formal test, with 128 questions that you need to learn, and get 12 of them right,” he said. “Do we really need that? What is important for a new citizen is to know their rights and their responsibilities. That is what levels them with other citizens.”
Maeve Higgins (@maevehiggins) is the author of “Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl From Somewhere Else” and a contributing Opinion writer.