US unveils new citizenship test

As we’ve all read recently, The US is rolling out a new citizenship test for immigrants who want to take the big step to US citizenship. According to the BBC and other reports, the government’s aim with these test changes is to shift away from an emphasis on historical fact to an emphasis of the “correct” interpretation of those facts.

Mr Gonzalez says those who want to become US citizens should not be allowed to do so by simply rattling off historical facts they have memorised but should show a passion for the country of which they are becoming an integral part.

Exactly how a sitting government impartially grade a “passion for the country” is a current queston of some concern. Immigrant groups don’t like it. Here are are some sample test questions (also found on the BBC website):


  • Why does the United States have three branches of government?
  • Name two rights that are only for US citizens
  • Name two cabinet-level positions
  • Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence
  • What does the Constitution do?
  • These questions might send a lot of us scurrying to our reference books.


    Exactly which class of “rights” are they talking about? I remembered that questions about the Bill of Rights border on a trick question, but I’m not going to admit I had to go to Wikipedia to confirm that the Bill of Rights really is in the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. It is not a laundry list of citizenship rights, but a popular name for the first ten Amendments, such as those dealing with freedom of press, assembly and religion. Even “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is not in the Constitution, but in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.

    How would we do on this test?

    The answers are not supplied; either the government isn’t saying, or the BBC presumes we Yanks should know the answers to our own test. Prospective citizens would do well to NOT copy my answers:

    • We have three branches of government to limit the power of any one of them, part of our system of “checks and balances” (which also includes a bicameral legislature). For example, the Legislative Branch can pass a bill prohibiting torture of enemy combatants, or of secret detention and interrogation of same, but (preventing an excessive abrogation of power by the one branch), the Administrative branch can veto it.
    • Rights applicable only to US citizens? The Preamble asserts that “all men” are endowed with certain inalienable rights by our Creator. The Bill of Rights is more specific about what exactly the Creator meant by this, and who is included. We’ve already learned that you don’t get a right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment, or due process, until you are either born in this country, or pass Attorney General Gonzalez’s test.
    • Two cabinet-level positions: Rumsfeld and Cheney … no, wait a minute …
    • One important idea found in the Declaration of Independence? Just one? What about the right and duty to oust the rascals when they abrogate too much power?
    • What does the Constitution do? It regulates and limits the absolute power of government while defending the People against those excesses … right?

    The OLD test was based on stale, dry historical facts and figures: “Give me liberty or give me death” was said by (a) Patrick Henry, 1775 (b) Paris Hilton, 2003? At least there is only one correct answer, it fits on the grader’s cheat sheet answer book, and it’s not subject to interpretation.

    In the NEW test, there are hundreds of new, revolutionary ideas found in the Declaration. How many fit on the government grader’s cheat sheet? Is the answer subjectively graded? If a smart-ass like me chooses the actual passages dealing with the overthrow of the King’s regime, is this patriotism sufficient evidence for a “passion for the country?”

    Interesting questions. Since when is a politically appointed Attorney General and his Administration the best guarantor of an objective testing process for good citizenship? After the 2008 elections, will we change the test again? Time will tell how objectively and even-handedly this new testing plays out. It’s a brave New World, indeed!

    PostScript: I later discovered that Slate magazine has an interesting article on how this new test is designed to work, and a brief history of how our country has administered testing in the past (it was, at times, quite arbitrary). Slate also provided a link to a PDF of the current, historical-based test that is still administered to applicants at this time. (The PDF is 169K and will take some time to download).

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