Ac­tivists rap new test for cit­i­zens that stresses U.S. prin­ci­ples

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Joyce Howard Price

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment in­tends to re­place the cur­rent test for U.S. cit­i­zen­ship with one that re­lies less on knowl­edge of spe­cific facts and more on an ap­pli­cant’s grasp of demo­cratic prin­ci­ples, but many im­mi­grant-ad­vo­cacy groups are up in arms about the change, which they worry may dis­crim­i­nate against those who don’t speak English and with less ed­u­ca­tion.

“We want to fo­cus more on the build­ing blocks of democ­racy, rather than the col­ors of the flag” or ques­tions about the name of the form used to ap­ply for nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen­ship, which are on the cur­rent test for cit­i­zen­ship, said Chris Bent­ley, a spokesman for the U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices, which is mak­ing the change. USCIS is part of the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

Mr. Bent­ley said USCIS of­fi­cials want a new test that can en­sure that those seek­ing to be­come Amer­i­can cit­i­zens know about “free­doms guar­an­teed by the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and Bill of Rights, such as free­dom of speech and free­dom of re­li­gion.”

“Our goal is not to make this test harder or eas­ier for any­one, but to make it much more mean­ing­ful,” he said.

Mr. Bent­ley said the pro­posal to re­design the test for nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen­ship came out of a re­port by a com­mis­sion headed by for­mer Rep. Bar­bara Jor­dan dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion that “looked at all kinds of is­sues re­lated to im­mi­gra­tion.”

The Jor­dan com­mis­sion’s re­port em­pha­sized “ef­fec­tive Amer­i­can­iza­tion of new im­mi­grants, that is the cul­ti­va­tion of a shared com­mit­ment to the Amer­i­can val­ues of lib­erty, democ­racy and equal op­por­tu­nity,” in­clud­ing poli­cies to “help new­com­ers learn to speak, read and write English ef­fec­tively.”

The new cit­i­zen­ship test will be ad­min­is­tered to all ap­pli­cants for nat­u­ral­iza­tion na­tion­wide start­ing in Jan­uary 2008. How­ever, be­gin­ning this win­ter, at least 5,000 peo­ple in 10 cities will take part in a vol­un­tary test­ing pro­gram fea­tur­ing the new ques­tions.

The num­ber of po­ten­tial ques­tions will be nar­rowed from 125 to 100 dur­ing the pilot pro­gram. To pass, an im­mi­grant must cor­rectly an­swer six of 10 ques­tions asked.

But more than 220 im­mi­grant or­ga­ni­za­tions, led by the Illi­nois Coali­tion of Im­mi­grant and Refugee Rights, have signed a let­ter to USCIS Di­rec­tor Emilio Gon­za­lez de­nounc­ing the new test, which they worry will make it harder for “poorer le­gal im­mi­grants with less English and less ed­u­ca­tion” to win U.S. cit­i­zen­ship.

“Al­ready im­mi­grants must pass a cit­i­zen­ship test that many na­tive-born Amer­i­cans could not pass,” say groups that in­clude the Na­tional Coun­cil of La Raza, Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion Fo­rum, Mex­i­can Amer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund, the United Farm Work­ers of Amer­ica and the In­ter­na­tional Broth­er­hood of Team­sters.

There are some tough ques­tions on the cur­rent test and queries that could be de­scribed as mean­ing­ful. One of the more dif­fi­cult asks a per­son to iden­tify amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion guar­an­tee­ing vot­ing rights. Oth­ers ask what is the “supreme law of the land” — the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion — and the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amend­ments to the Con­sti­tu­tion).

Just be­cause the test for Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship is be­ing re­vised “does not mean all the cur­rent ques­tions will be done away,” said Mr. Bent­ley. He was un­able to pro­vide any sam­ple ques­tions from the new test.

Jack Martin, spe­cial-projects di­rec­tor of the Fed­er­a­tion for Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form (FAIR), a group that is crit­i­cal of un­lim­ited im­mi­gra­tion, said there are both po­ten­tial im­prove­ments and prob­lems with the pro­posed changes.

“The ef­fort at stan­dard­iza­tion makes sense [. . . ] the con­cept is good, and there re­ally are some triv­ial ques­tions on the cur­rent test,” he said.

“Our only con­cern is that ques­tions not be dumbed down” so that im­mi­grants could be­come Amer­i­can cit­i­zens “with­out hav­ing a good un­der­stand­ing of U.S. his­tory, cul­ture and so­cial sys­tems, so they can vote in­tel­li­gently,” Mr. Martin said, adding that cit­i­zen­ship tests “should be de­signed to make sure cit­i­zens are pre­pared to par­tic­i­pate in our po­lit­i­cal process.”

As for those wor­ried the new test might be harder or eas­ier, Mr. Bent­ley said, USCIS in­tends to avoid those sit­u­a­tions “by look­ing at pass-fail rates of the past.”

Re­searcher Amy Baskerville con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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