Bush might flunk the new citizenship test

With a flourish, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services revealed its new test for naturalization last week. If it is implemented nationally in 2008 as planned, it will raise the bar a little higher for immigrants wishing to become U.S. citizens.

And George W. Bush probably could not pass it.

Up to now, to become a U.S. citizen, you had to be a legal resident immigrant for five years (or three if you served in the armed forces), not be convicted of a serious crime, fill out the N-400 form, pay some fees and pass a test showing that you can read and speak English and know a bit about U.S. history and government.

For several years, the government has been talking about giving the citizenship test greater “academic integrity.” Now, as an educator, I am all for academic integrity, but moral integrity is more important for citizenship. Older people and people who did not have the opportunity to go to college have some problems with the existing test. Yet does this mean that they should not have any political rights?

There are 144 questions on the new test list (you will only be asked a few, but you don’t know which). Most are things that it would be good to know. Media commentators immediately remarked that many native-born citizens would not be able to answer them. Here are a few of the proposed questions:

“12. What type of economic system does the U.S. have?” The suggested correct answers are: “Capitalist economy, free market, market economy.” But what if an immigrant says “plutocratic oligarchy” or even “neo-liberal imperialism”? These things are true too. Will the inspector flunk the applicant?

“25. Who does a U.S. senator represent?” The answer is supposed to be: “All citizens in that senator’s state.” But many would say he or she should represent all residents in the state, not only citizens. And what if a literal-minded immigrant were to answer “wealthy special interests”? That’s often true, isn’t it? But I bet they would flunk her.

“74. What are ‘inalienable rights’?” Answer: “Individual rights that people are born with. Wrong. “Inalienable” means “cannot be alienated,” i.e. taken away, not merely “present at birth.” And this is important, because our present government sits up all night thinking of ways to take away our birthrights as citizens. A couple of years ago, the Ashcroft Injustice Department even cooked up a proposed law (dubbed Patriot Act II) whereby U.S. citizens, born here, could be stripped of their citizenship without due process of law and permanently dumped in some God-forsaken desert (this was not enacted by Congress — yet). The umbilical cord is “present at birth” and is taken away immediately with a snip of the obstetrician’s or midwife’s scissors. Let us take care that this does not happen to our “inalienable rights” also.

“30. Name one example of checks and balances.” Possible answers: “The president vetoes a bill; Congress can confirm or not confirm a president’s nominee; Congress approves the president’s budget; or the Supreme Court strikes down a law.” What if the applicant says, “Congress overrides the president’s veto,” or “Congress impeaches and convicts the president”? Will they flunk him? Would this not perhaps depend on the political opinions, or level of knowledge, of the examiner? And could George W. Bush pass this question, given that the entire course of his presidency has been one long assault on the whole concept of checks and balances?

I don’t think we should be putting more obstacles in the path of naturalization and full participation of everybody in our society. A more difficult process is especially likely to disqualify working-class applicants whose formal education has been limited by lack of opportunity. Planned fee increases will have the same effect. And making it harder to get U.S. citizenship ensures that more working-class, low-income and minority immigrants will be denied the right to vote in the future. Furthermore, since the immigration “reform” laws of 1996, the rights of “legal” immigrants, i.e. permanent residents, have been severely curtailed. It is now not just a matter of whether you can vote or run for president, but whether you have basic due process rights or instead can be whisked away at the government’s whim.

I would be tempted to say that this “improved” test is being imposed now in response to the huge immigrant rights movement that filled our streets with marchers this year. But I know for a fact that this has been in the works for two or three years. Anyhow, we should be working to make the test, if there has to be one, simpler and easier, the fees lower and the wait for processing, which is unconscionably long (especially if you are an Arab or Muslim), much shorter. There’s another objective for the immigrant rights movement in 2007.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.