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PORTSIDE  March 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE March 2011, Week 1

Subject:

How I Passed My U.S. Citizenship Test

From:

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Date:

Sun, 6 Mar 2011 19:14:32 -0500

Content-Type:

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text/plain (291 lines)

How I Passed My U.S. Citizenship Test: 
By Keeping the Right Answers to Myself
by Dafna Linzer
ProPublica
Februrary 23, 2011

This story was co-published with Slate.

Last month, I became an American citizen, a tremendous
honor and no easy accomplishment, even for a Canadian.
After living here for 12 years, I thought I knew
everything. Then I learned how we mint Americans [2].

After years of steep filing fees and paperwork
(including one letter from Homeland Security claiming
that my fingerprints had "expired"), it all came down to
a test. I passed, and, my fellow Americans, you could,
too -- if you don't mind providing answers that you know
are wrong.

Friends told me I didn't need to study, the questions
weren't that hard. But I wanted to and so for months I
lugged around a set of government-issued flashcards [3],
hoping to master the test. I pestered my family and
friends to quiz me. Sometimes I quizzed my sources. I
learned things (there are 27 amendments to the
Constitution) and they learned things (there are 27
amendments to the Constitution). But then we began
noticing errors in a number of the questions and
answers.

Take Question 36. It asks applicants to name two members
of the president's Cabinet. Among the correct answers is
"Vice President." The vice president is a cabinet-level
officer but he's not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members
are unelected heads of executive departments [4], such
as the Defense Department, or the State Department.

The official naturalization test booklet even hints as
much: "The president may appoint other government
officials to the cabinet but no elected official may
serve on the cabinet while in office." Note to Homeland
Security: The vice president is elected.

Still, a wonderful press officer in the New York
immigration office noted that the White House's own
website [5] lists the vice president as a member of the
Cabinet. It's still wrong, I explained. I told her that
my partner wrote an entire book about the vice president
and won a Pulitzer Prize [6] for the stories. I was
pretty sure about this one. A parade of constitutional
scholars backed me up.

In fact, the Constitution aligns the vice president more
closely with the legislative branch as president of the
Senate. Not until well into the 20th century did the
vice president even attend Cabinet meetings.

Then there is Question 12: What is the "rule of law"?

I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were
stumped.

There are four acceptable answers: "Everyone must follow
the law"; "Leaders must obey the law"; "Government must
obey the law"; "No one is above the law."

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who
serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was
unhappy. "These are all incorrect," he wrote me. "The
rule of law means that judges decide cases 'without
respect of persons,' that is, without considering the
social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or
their lawyers."

So, where do these questions come from?

The 160 newly minted Americans at the swearing-in
ceremony on Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

The 160 newly minted Americans at the swearing-in
ceremony on Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [7], a
department within Homeland Security, spent six years
consulting scholars, educators, and historians before
the current test was introduced in 2008. The result: 100
questions and answers designed to provide an in-depth
treatment of U.S. history and government.

"The goal of the naturalization test is to ensure
America's newest citizens have mastered a basic
knowledge of U.S. history and have a solid foundation to
continue to expand their understanding as they embark on
life as U.S. citizens," said Christopher Bentley, a
spokesman for USCIS.

During the citizenship interview, applicants are asked a
randomly selected 10 questions from the test and must
answer six correctly. In addition to the questions,
there is a reading and writing test for English
proficiency.

My immigration lawyer accompanied me to my interview. In
the security line, I told her I was bothered by Question
16: Who makes the federal laws?

Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was
incomplete. The official answers were: "Congress";
"Senate and House (of representatives)"; "(U.S. or
national) legislature." I'm not a lawyer but even
Canadians watched Schoolhouse Rock [8]. Where, I
wondered, was the president, whose signature is what
makes a bill into a law?

My lawyer sighed, she agreed. But: "If you get asked
that question, just give the official answer," she said.
I didn't get that question.

I also wasn't asked Question 1: "What is the supreme law
of the land?"

The official answer: "the Constitution." A friend and
legal scholar was aghast. That answer, he said, is "no
more than one-third correct." He's right.

Article VI, clause 2 in the Constitution, known as the
Supremacy Clause [9], explicitly says that three things
-- the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties --
together "shall be the supreme law of the land."

Question 96 asks: Why does the flag have 13 stripes? The
official answer: "because there were 13 original
colonies." In fact, the flag has 13 stripes for the 13
original states.

Many of the test questions, organized under topics such
as "system of government," "geography," and "American
history" are correct and informative. Since I'm a
reporter, one tugged at my heart.

Question 55 asks: What are two ways that Americans can
participate in their democracy? Among the correct
answers: "write to a newspaper."

At my interview, I was asked questions on presidential
succession, the Cabinet, Senate terms, and the Supreme
Court. I was asked to name a branch of government. (I
went with the executive.)

I was asked Question 8: What did the Declaration of
Independence do?

Heeding my lawyer's advice, I went with the official
answer: "declared our independence."

I answered six consecutive questions correctly and moved
on to the language section of the exam. Native English
speakers are not exempt from this section and I was
asked to read aloud the following sentence: "Columbus
Day is in October."

I was then asked to write a sentence in English.
Remarkably, it was the same sentence: "Columbus Day is
in October."

Next, I reaffirmed answers I had given on my citizenship
application [10].

Was I a member of the Communist Party? Was I member of a
totalitarian party? Am I a terrorist? Although I was
born in 1970, I was asked: Between March 23, 1933 and
May 8, 1945, did I work for or associate in any way with
the Nazi government of Germany? Had I worked at a
concentration camp?

The officer who interviewed me, Sandy Saint Louis, had
to ask me the questions. But she didn't even look up or
wait for my responses. She checked off "No" after each
one.

She did pay attention when she asked whether I was a
habitual drunkard, a polygamist, a drug-smuggler, a
felon, a tax-evader.

My paperwork was in order, my background check was
complete. When the interview was over, Saint Louis
pressed a large wooden seal into a red ink pad and
stamped "approved" across my application. A wave of
relief washed over me and my lawyer shot me a sweet
smile. Ten days later, when I returned for the swearing-
in, a brief and final questionnaire asked if I had
engaged in prostitution since the interview. I checked
"No."

On Friday, Jan. 28, accompanied by my family, I was
among 160 citizens-in-waiting who filed into a 3rd floor
auditorium in lower Manhattan to be sworn in as
Americans. On our seats were an American flag, a copy of
the Constitution, a booklet featuring the stories of
prominent naturalized Americans, and a welcome letter
from President Obama.

Reading the letter, I began to cry. I had spent more
than one-quarter of my life hoping to become American,
and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the honor and the
significance of the moment. The place I have called home
for 12 years was finally claiming me as well.

I looked around the room and saw other fortunate souls
with long journeys now behind them, quietly weeping with
joy.

An immigration official asked us all to stand, and to
remain standing, when the name of our country of origin
was called out. After he read through the names of 44
countries, we were all standing, waving our flags.

Together, we took the Oath of Allegiance and were then
seated as citizens of one nation.

Everyone in the room that day had scored a perfect 100
percent on the test and, for fun, an official decided to
test us all once more. Who wrote "The Star Spangled
Banner"? he asked. Only a few called out "Francis Scott
Key," perhaps because that question is no longer on the
test. It was prominently removed four years ago. [11]

The video message from President Barack Obama showed at
every swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail
Gellman)

The video message from President Barack Obama showed at
every swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail
Gellman) A newly sworn-in citizen led us in the Pledge
of Allegiance. We sang the national anthem and then
watched a video message [12] from the president shown at
every swearing-in ceremony across the country.

"It's an honor and a privilege to call you a fellow
citizen of the United States of America," Obama told us.
"This is now officially your country."

There were more tears. At the end of the hour, we
received certificates of naturalization and were given
instructions on how to obtain U.S. passports.

My family and I left soon afterward. It was 10:30 a.m.
and cold outside. We took the subway uptown. Three
children got off at three different stops, headed to
their schools or the library. We took the youngest up to
his school. He walked in clutching his American flag and
announced proudly to his teachers that "Mommy is
American."

At a party that evening, I displayed the letter from
Obama and laid out the flashcards. Over Sam Adams beer
and mini-burgers, I spoke about the ceremony and test.
The host led us all in the Pledge of Allegiance, my
second of the day. Looking around the room, I realized
that a significant number of my friends are journalists,
writers, academics, and lawyers. It's a nitpicky crowd
and during three hours of celebration they noticed
additional errors in the questions.

At the end of the night, one of the catering staff
gathered up the flash cards and as she held them out to
me, she revealed that next month she too will take her
citizenship test. I was thrilled. I closed my first day
as an American citizen by handing them over to her.
"Which ones did you say were wrong again?" she asked.
"Just give the official answer," I said, "and you'll do
fine."

___________________________________________

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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