INS test may thwart citizens

May 18, 2000|By Joanne Jacobs

SAN JOSE, Calif. Who wrote the national anthem?

Maria Paz-Perez knows, which is how she became a U.S. citizen.

Who was the first commander in chief?

That was another question asked in her citizenship exam.

Who takes over if the president and vice president both die?

To naturalize, a would-be citizen must demonstrate basic knowledge of U.S. history and government, as well as basic command of English. There are lower English requirements for applicants over 50 who've been here a long time.

Applicants study 100 questions, from which citizenship exam questions are taken.

Often they memorize a collection of civics trivia, critics say.

"The test is a random collection of assorted facts," says Miriam Sachs-Martin, who teaches citizenship classes at San Jose's Sacred Heart Community Services.

Who said, "Give me liberty or give me death?"

When was the Constitution adopted?

"We grill this stuff into students, but it doesn't develop a sense of history or encourage participation in government," says Ms. Sachs-Martin.

Most applicants pass the test, but its difficulty varies from one testing center to another, one examiner to another.

Now the Immigration and Naturalization Service is considering a standardized test that would focus on the fundamentals new citizens should understand. To give the INS feedback on what's fundamental, take the Great American Citizenship Test. at The McCormick Tribune Foundation developed the site.

You won't be asked the three branches of government or what the stripes in the flag symbolize.

You'll be asked to evaluate which questions should be asked, and you'll see the ratings given by INS workers, Congress members and staffers, and the public.

The president of the United States lives in the White House in Washington.

The American form of government is a representative democracy because laws are passed and enforced by elected representatives of the people.

Abraham Lincoln called upon Americans to preserve a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas (the New World) in 1492.

After each question, you're asked: Is it not important, somewhat important, important or very important for new citizens to know this?

INS staffers are very hot for everything in the American Places and Things category.

Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, located in Philadelphia, are symbols of American freedom.

INS staff gave this a top rating, while others said "somewhat important."

Important national values include individual liberty, equality, fairness and respect for the law.

Just about everyone rated this as "most important."

Americans also see themselves as valuing education, hard work, community service and the protection of diversity.

This was too fuzzy for many respondents.

Learning English is more challenging for most applicants than mastering the 100 questions, says Ms. Paz-Perez. She works for East Side Union High School District's adult education program, which offers citizenship classes.

People who are fluent in English can prep for the exam with a six-week class in history and civics. Those who aren't take a semester-long class that mixes English instruction with citizenship basics. Classes meet for 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, three or four times a week. Some students need two or three semesters before they're ready to face the INS.

If the test becomes a true measure of historical and civic understanding, it will ask far more knowledge of new citizens than of those who were born here.

Perhaps the new citizenship exam should be tested on a cross-section of native-born Americans. Only questions answered correctly by a majority of natives would make the test.

It would be a short test.

Who wants to be a citizen? The answers to the questions above are: Francis Scott Key; George Washington; the Speaker of the House; Patrick Henry; signed in 1787, ratified by all states in 1790.

Joanne Jacobs is a member of the San Jose Mercury News editorial board. She can be reached by e-mail at

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