One of the staffers here at the NI is in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship, and we’ve been having some fun helping her study for her naturalization test.
Some of the 100 questions in her practice booklet seem absurdly simple (“What is the capital of the United States?” and “Who was the first U.S. president?”), while others require a more in-depth knowledge of our history and government (“Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers,” “Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. Name one,” and “How many amendments does the Constitution have?”)
According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, “Section 312 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires that naturalization applicants must demonstrate an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language, and have a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).”
Therefore, USCIS administers a naturalization test consisting of two components: English and civics. And according to the agency’s website, of the more than 1.5 million people who took the tests from Oct. 1, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2011, 93 percent passed.
With a pass rate that high, you might wonder if the test is too easy. But according to a new study released last week, one-third of native-born U.S. citizens couldn’t score the 60 percent needed to pass the test. If the pass rate were 7 out of 10, Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream said, one half of native-born Americans would fail.
Native-born citizens did well with elementary school-level questions ("What is the name of the president of the United States?" and “Where is the Statue of Liberty?). Questions about the Constitution, the political structure of our government and current political leaders posed much more of a challenge. For example:
• 82 percent could not name two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence.
• 75 percent didn’t know what the judiciary branch does.
• 71 percent were unable to identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land."
• 63 percent could not name one of their two U.S. senators.
• 62 percent could not name of the speaker of the U.S. House.
It’s no coincidence that the study was released in an election year. According to Michael Ford of Center for the Study of the American Dream, “It’s about what vote-eligible Americans specifically know and do not know in the midst of an important presidential election, after 12-18 years of school and 24/7 exposure to unfiltered multi-media.”
Most of us could likely be shamed by our answers to at least some of the questions on the USCIS naturalization test (though here in Santa Cruz County, we’d all hopefully get “Name one state that borders Mexico.”). So with elections coming up, not to mention Independence Day, it’s a good time for us natural-born citizens to crack open the old civics textbook and try to keep up with the immigrants.
(Clark is managing editor of the Nogales International and Weekly Bulletin.)