Nine Years In The Making And Still Nonexistent: The New Citizenship Test

Alfonso Aguilar's job is to write a test that almost everyone can pass. It isn't as easy as it sounds. Mr. Aguilar heads the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Citizenship, which the Bush administration has charged with rewriting the civics and literacy tests that immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens. As it is, 97% of those who take the civics test make it through by answering questions such as "Where is the White House located?" and "How many states are there in the Union?" A similar number -- 95% -- pass the literacy test by reading one English sentence and writing another. Last year, 418,332 people became citizens after passing those two exams. No one objects to the high pass rate. "What does the nation gain if you fail people out of citizenship?" asks Mr. Aguilar...

A higher average quality of citizen?

The project to develop a new test is already nine years old -- it predated Mr. Aguilar's appointment -- and has at least two years to go... The Department of Homeland Security, which now oversees immigration, publishes the list of questions. During the test, an examiner picks any 10; a would-be citizen must answer six correctly. To test for English competence, the examiner provides two sentences and asks the test-taker to read one and write another. The examiner can make up sentences or chose from a list of 98 possibilities the government publishes. The list includes "All people want to be free" and "He has a very big dog." ...[WSJ.COM:Would-Be Citizens Will Face New Test, If It's Ever Written]

That reminds me of one of my favorite true news stories. The LA Times reported in August of 2004:

A chain of alternative high schools accused of selling phony diplomas has taught thousands of immigrants that ...

• There are 53 states in the United States. In addition to the "original" 50 states, the union has added Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But the flag has not yet been updated to reflect the addition of the last three states.

• There are four branches of government. They are the legislative, judicial, executive and "administrative" branches. Asked about the fourth branch by investigators, one teacher responded that "not much is heard about it because it works behind the scenes." The Treasury Department is part of the "administrative" branch.

• There are two houses of Congress: the Senate for Democrats and the House for Republicans.

• World War II occurred from 1938 to 1942.

• One question in the workbook says: "Read the book 'Death of a Traveling Salesman' and write a commentary."

Who runs this chain of phony high schools? Bart Simpson?

The WSJ continues:

Conservative groups fret that the test doesn't promote assimilation by teaching immigrants about American history and the workings of government. "You want a test that makes people think about what it means to be an American," says Matthew Spaulding, who studies immigration policy for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank.

The essential problem is that only intellectuals think you "promote assimilation" by making people study. Back in 2000, I wrote in VDARE on "How to Instill a Love of America:"

First, the current citizenship test reflects a schoolmarm's bias toward book-learning rather than what really motivates love of country. Neoconservative intellectuals constantly tell us that America is not a nation based on blood, but on ideological "propositions." Yet, these American "propositions" are far less exceptional today than when Abraham Lincoln defined America as "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Why should anybody be more loyal to America than to another country devoted to similarly admirable propositions - such as New Zealand?

In reality, of course, the average person's most visceral loyalties are not to words, but to the other people, living and dead, in the group to which he belongs. Soldiers sometimes enlist to defend ideals. But when the bullets are flying, they don't charge machine guns to preserve the separation of powers. They risk their lives for the other guys in their platoon.

What best builds group-cohesion is working together for a common goal. As Hollywood WWII movies loved to show, sharing a foxhole forged solidarity among mutually suspicious white ethnics. If we don't strenuously emphasize loyalty and sacrifice toward one's fellow American citizens, human beings will naturally gravitate toward promoting their racial group and class.

You can get people to bond across racial and class lines, but seldom by preaching at them. For example, UC Berkeley students are constantly exhorted about equality and interracial solidarity. But the only place on campus where black and whites students can be seen making sacrifices for each other is on the football field. Black and white college football players are far more likely to eat lunch together or listen to each other's music than are their more articulate and politically correct fellow students simply because they have to play together as a team in order to win.

Another basic law of human psychology is this: You don't get somebody to like you by doing them a favor. That only tends to build resentment over the fact that they are needy and you are not. No, you ask them to do you a favor.

Thus, I believe one way to instill a love for the American people in immigrants applying for citizenship might be to require them to put in, say, 100 hours of community service (which could be performed in six weekends). We would have to carefully control what kind of service. Allowing, say, Chinese applicants to work in Chinatown would accomplish nothing. Nor would forcing them to work among the dregs of the native-born. No, immigrant applicants must work in organizations where at least half the volunteers were American citizens and where the people served are not primarily the immigrant's own ethnic group.