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Struggling for Citizenship

November 2007
Struggling for Citizenship

We all know someone struggling to pass the citizenship test administered by US CIS – whether it's your neighbor's mother, or your own elderly relatives. Every year, thousands of hopeful would-be citizens pour into CIS District Offices to face the challenge of the test. Some immigrant rights activists are afraid that the new citizenship test unveiled by the government at the end of September 2007 will create a higher barrier for people who want to become Americans.

However, far from being an exclusionary tool, the new test, which will be given to legal resident aliens who apply for citizenship after Oct. 1, 2008, is actually a rare mechanism for immigrant inclusion. It's true that, historically, whenever the government has introduced a new citizenship exam, it has been responding to shifting national attitudes toward immigration. And the climate today for immigrants—be they legal or illegal—is not so friendly. What's more, this past July, the government raised the citizenship application fee from $400 to $675. That wasn't exactly a welcome wagon.

Despite expectations to the contrary, US CIS lived up to its promise to create a new test that would promote democratic values and civic integration, but without being any more difficult than the old one. The new exam does more than simply measure one's ability to memorize facts. Instead of asking, "What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?" for example, the new exam is more likely to ask, "Why did the colonists fight the British?" It is more about concepts than facts, and it requires newcomers to learn about what it means to be American, not simply how many stripes are on the flag or who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Many surveys over the last few weeks revealed that plenty of native-born Americans wouldn't be able to answer the new questions off the top of their head. Quick: What are two rights only for United States citizens? (Voting, running for office, carrying a U.S. passport, holding a federal job.) But that's a meaningless gauge of the test's difficulty because prospective citizens will be able to study all 100 potential questions and acceptable answers before their oral exam, during which they must answer six out of 10 correctly. So far, of the 6,000 applicants who volunteered to take the new test, 92.4 percent have passed—higher than the overall 84 percent pass rate for the test we've been using since 1986.

This new exam is concerned with teaching the soon-to-be-naturalized immigrant how to be a good citizen. And that's a welcome shift in federal policy. Citizenship is not just a legal status that confers rights and benefits. Particularly in a highly diverse nation like ours, it is an identity that should give us a sense of a shared fate and belonging. It is also a license to integrate oneself into American civic culture and to participate in a remarkable system of self-government.

For the last two generations, the government and schools have stressed the importance of respecting cultural pluralism. But in this new era of high immigration—12 percent of today's population is foreign-born - it seems critical for the government to encourage new citizens to identify with our shared political culture.

The new citizenship test is an important step in the right direction, and a far cry from the coercive assimilationist programs of the early 20th century. With any luck, it'll be one of many new efforts that help Americans—new and old—balance our healthy regard for cultural pluralism with an equally strong respect for our shared political culture.

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