- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

The government plans to make a big change in the way aliens become Americans. And that has a lot of people nervous.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has begun the significant, far-reaching process of creating the nation's first standardized English and civics test for residents seeking to become U.S. citizens. The agency has allocated money and assembled the staff. It plans to deal with expected difficulties and have a "pilot test" ready for trials by 2003.

Creating a standardized test to replace the current citizenship-evaluation process is terribly important for would-be citizens. It affects their fate. But it affects the fate of the nation, too, and the public should pay attention to what's happening, say historians, political scientists and members of the vast immigration establishment.

The reasoning is this:

The United States is committed to uninterrupted, unending, high immigration. More than a million persons migrate here yearly. Currently a record 26.4 million foreign-born persons live here, and the number is growing.

In recent years, more than a million of the foreign-born residents have been applying for citizenship annually. Most obtain it. And as the number of new citizens continually rises, their power and their share of responsibility for the nation's future does, too.

Thus, the argument goes, if American culture and government are to survive, it becomes increasingly crucial for new citizens to know what America stands for and how its unusual government functions.

Although academicians, consultants, and immigration advocates and lawyers generally agree that a fair, standardized test is essential, they also say inventing one may be impossible. They predict the effort will explode on the INS if the test is too tough or is vacuous or otherwise fails to quiz immigrants on topics various groups insist are essential components of citizenship.

"The content of a naturalization test has the potential to be a flash point for political controversy for a culture war. Some will want to have 12 percent of the questions on black Americans, say, and others will want questions on other specific areas of American life," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

That aside, it's said that a successful standardized test would help provide an officially accepted description of the ideas and ideals that undergird America. It would help define what it means to be an American. It would assist immigrants in assimilating, or becoming "Americanized."

That might seem like a good idea to many U.S. citizens. Yet it's no secret that a large minority opposes the notion.

As journalist-author John Miller notes, a number of U.S. intellectuals and ethnic group leaders vehemently oppose Americanization.

In "The Unmaking of Americans," Mr. Miller writes, "Multiculturalists' greatest fear about assimilation is that it will happen. They view Americanization as a kinder, gentler form of ethnic cleansing… . They are intent on using state power to preserve native cultures, native languages and group solidarity."

Says Mr. Miller: "Americanization is tremendously urgent now. But it has fallen on hard times. Inevitably, creating a naturalization test will create controversy no matter what [INS officials] do."

A haphazard system

On one thing all agree: The current citizenship evaluation system is flawed. "A national disaster," is the way education consultant George Elford puts it. Political scientist Noah Pickus of Duke University remarks that "the whole process is disrespectful to all concerned."

Responding to such remarks, an INS spokesperson says the agency is aware of the criticism and is "concerned that anyone is being treated unfairly or in a haphazard way."

She explains, "The INS is aware there is a widespread impression that the testing is a problem." That, she says, is one reason the agency is creating a standardized test.

By all accounts, the current system is haphazard. It is based on a 1952 law and, in general, it works this way:

Permanent U.S. residents who are at least 18 years old and have lived in the country for five years or more can along with certain others apply for naturalization. They get forms to fill out, a naturalization guide to study, an extensive list of documents to supply and directions for paying the $250 processing fee.

The applicants are told they will be summoned for an interview and that they will be "asked to verbally answer a set of civics questions or to take a written multiple-choice test with up to 20 questions."

They also are informed that their "ability to read, write, and speak English will be tested." Applicants need not be fluent. The law states they must "read, write and speak words in ordinary usage … simple words and phrases."

The applicants are given a list of 100 sample civics questions that was developed in 1986. It includes such queries as, "What are the colors of our flag?" and "In what year was the Constitution written?" (The answer: 1787.)

Applicants also are given a list of sentences they might be asked to listen to and then write, including, "The boy threw a ball" and "The Constitution is the supreme law of our land."

But in fact, the "adjudicators" who examine applicants can and do ask any questions they wish and can dictate any sentence that strikes their fancy.

Consequently, immigration and ethnic groups have for years protested that an immigrant's ability to pass muster depends on who the adjudicator is, what mood he's in, how many questions he thinks must be answered correctly, and whether he's biased against the race or ethnic group the applicant represents.

It's a subjective process that often leaves applicants "mystified and frustrated," says Rosalind Gold of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

Tackling the problem

Eradicating the subjectivity requires finding ways to give essentially the same test to both educated and illiterate persons with varying degrees of English fluency. It requires changing INS regulations and forms. It may well require leasing new facilities, if it's thought that giving the test in a classroom is better than the current practice of using adjudicators' offices. There is a host of other details that an INS officials says make the process "ridiculously complicated."

Most importantly, creating a test requires consulting with different groups "to determine what standards to establish, what subject matter to cover and how to gauge who passes or fails," INS officials say.

In fact, various groups of scholars, lawyers, and others in the immigration community already have been meeting unofficially to discuss such matters.

The Robert T. McCormick Tribune Foundation sponsored one such gathering in Chicago this summer. And the academics, immigration consultants, lawyers and others who flew in from around the country demonstrated just how polarizing the test issue is.

True, all recognized that America is a special case as nations go. Its population differs from the populations of other nations because Americans aren't united by race or ethnic origins. What unites Americans is a cluster of ideas, beliefs and ideals, and a principle expressed in the Latin slogan E Pluribus Unum, which means "From Many, One."

But there agreement ends.

At one extreme is Peter Spiro. He is an influential law professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. At the conference and later in an interview, he declared that testing citizenship applicants to see if they share a belief in democratic principles and other fundamental American notions and values is unnecessary. It prevents many worthy people from applying for citizenship, he declared.

He remarked, "Besides, I'm not sure how we define ourselves as a nation, and I'm not sure the INS is up to the task of determining it."

Mr. Spiro contended that people who have lived in the United States for five years automatically know enough about the nation to warrant citizenship. Others commended that reasoning.

The professor also argued that in the early 20th century most immigrants came from non-democratic governments and may have had difficulty understanding the democratic process. Consequently, requiring them to study it made sense. Now, he contended, most immigrants understand democracy. They don't have to study it or be tested because democracy predominates in the world and people are arriving from democratic countries.

At the conference, Mr. Spiro's logic prompted sardonic remarks that Haiti, Guatemala, Colombia, Russia, India and other democratic republics don't have "our kind of democracy."

Mr. Spiro also opposed testing for command of English because it frightens off applicants. He reasoned that, if the absence of testing should cause English to be de-emphasized in the country, that's no problem.

"English is losing its dominance anyway," he observed.

Indeed, others have proposed that naturalization tests be given in many languages.

Many share Mr. Spiro's various views. And there are those who advocate promoting dual citizenship, allowing non-citizens to vote and eliminating the Oath of Allegiance, which is part of the naturalization ceremony.

Diametrically opposed to such thinking is John Fonte, director of the Center for American Common Culture.

"America is not a club," he said. He insisted a naturalization process that includes a well-formulated test helps immigrants achieve "patriotic" or "traditional" assimilation, meaning they "adopt American civic values and the American heritage as their own."

When that happens, he said, people from Russia, Japan, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, "begin to think of American history as 'our history' not 'their history.' " And he indicated that properly naturalized citizens become so wrapped up in America that they can refer to the ancient colonizers as "our Pilgrim ancestors."

Mr. Pickus, the political scientist, said at the conference and later reiterated, "The naturalization test is part of the process of finding symbolic ways of binding people together. Everything from the kind of swearing-in ceremony to the results of a test prepare people to think about what it means to become citizens."

But, he continued, the nation is divided about naturalization. People who advocate immigration limits want to "ratchet up requirements and create harder questions."

He recalled, "One person at the conference wanted to impose periods of mandatory community service on residents as a requirement for citizenship an impossibility for most struggling newcomers."

Given such clashing views, Mr. Pickus shares a conclusion many have reached. He says, "I do wonder if it is possible to fix the test and the process. But I'm hopeful."

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