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Posted January 23, 2006
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A Test of Principles, Not Presidents
U.S. will redesign citizenship exam

JANUARY 22, 2006 - What color are the stars on our flag? How many representatives are in Congress? Who becomes president if the president and the vice president should die? Who wrote ''The Star-Spangled Banner?" Which US citizenship and immigration form is used to apply to become a naturalized citizen?

The federal government has decided that these questions -- five of the 100 that could appear on the US citizenship test -- are trivial. They say the exam, which is supposed to gauge how well immigrants understand and embrace US institutions, instead tests only their ability to memorize answers (white, 435, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Francis Scott Key, Form N-400).

So the Office of Citizenship is designing a new test, to be administered starting in 2008. It will ask aspiring citizens about what it means to be American, rather than quiz them on picayune facts. Officials say it is more important to ask immigrants about such principles as freedom of speech and religion, than for them to know trivia quiz items like how many amendments there are to the Constitution.

The proposed change is already triggering debate over what should be expected of immigrants who want to become citizens.

But the goal, says Alfonso Aguilar, chief of the Office of Citizenship at the Department of Homeland Security, is to design a process that will ultimately produce citizens who are more involved, more aware of their rights and responsibilities, and more American.

''We don't think the current test encourages civil learning and attachment to the country," he said. ''We want to celebrate diversity and encourage the common values that link every American," Aguilar said in an interview. ''Immigrants who embrace those values become fully American. . . . You're going to have an immigrant population more integrated and more involved in civic culture."

Immigrant advocates agree that having prospective citizens identify closely with American values is good for both new arrivals and their adopted country. But some advocates worry that making the exam more sophisticated will also make it too difficult for many immigrants who already live and work in the United States with green cards, the documents carried by legal permanent residents.

They are also concerned that a new test, with questions on concepts such as the federal system and the rule of law, will require better English skills than the basic level required by the current test. Despite rising naturalization rates, millions of eligible immigrants, particularly those who are poorer and lack English language skills, opt to not seek citizenship.

''If you've vetted them already to give them a green card, you've already decided you want them in the country," said Marylou Leung, who helps prepare immigrants for citizenship at the International Institute of Boston, a nonprofit immigrant assistance organization. ''They go through quite a bit of understanding to learn the answers to those 100 questions. Don't make the next step harder. Besides, how many Americans understand these concepts?"Continued...

On a chilly Tuesday afternoon, four immigrants sat in a classroom at the International Institute, trying to absorb the content of the current test. Recently arrived from Morocco and Albania, they were still learning English and having a tough time communicating, but they were catching on.

As Ilana Cohn, the teacher, showed students footage of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech, Besim Kaso, 69, of Albania, recognized the scene immediately.

''I have a dream, I have a dream!" he said, before King began speaking.

''What is Martin Luther King talking about?" Cohn asked the class.

''Freedom, freedom, freedom," said Vjollca Kaso, Besim's wife.

''What are civil rights?" Cohn asked.

''Same school, the black, the white," was the halting answer of Fatima Hamrani, 47, from Morocco.

To gain citizenship -- or become naturalized -- immigrants like Hamrani must have been permanent residents for five years, or three if they are married to and living with a US citizen. They must complete a long application, pay a $400 fee, and show they can read, speak, and write basic English. They must also demonstrate they know information about US history and government by correctly answering six out of 10 questions in an interview.

The percentage of immigrants who are citizens has risen steadily since the mid-1990s, when the stakes for citizenship were raised by legislation making it a requirement for some federal and state benefits. Since then, detaining and deporting noncitizens has also become far easier. About 1.5 million immigrants became citizens between 2002 and 2004, Aguilar said.

A list of sample questions can be found at http://uscis.gov/graphics/services/natz/100q.pdf

Yet for many more eligible immigrants, citizenship appears to be beyond reach. In Massachusetts, about 300,000 immigrants are eligible for citizenship but have not yet been naturalized. Nationally, the figure is about 8 million, according to Michael Fix, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

Language barriers, inadequate education, and financial constraints hold immigrants back, he said. According to a 2003 study by Fix and other immigration specialists, about 60 percent of eligible, noncitizen immigrants had limited English skills, one in four had less than a ninth-grade education, and at least 40 percent earned incomes of less than $40,000 a year for a family of four.

''That makes it problematic to tinker with the test in a way that will make it more difficult for a substantial number of people," Fix said. ''Some of the core concepts of American governance are fairly hard to get. Do we want this to be a barrier they have to climb in order to become citizens, given how much is at stake?"

If the English standard required is raised above the very basic level required by the current test, ''it will unfairly impact certain groups of immigrants: the elderly, refugees, people with limited educational backgrounds, people with limited opportunities to study English," said Lynne Weintraub of Amherst, author of a study guide for immigrants who want citizenship. ''And that's a lot of immigrants."

"I think all of us . . . support the idea that if you want to become a citizen, you should know what America is about," Weintraub said. ''But whether you can address content like that in simple words in ordinary usage is the big question."

Weintraub suggested one way to truly gauge immigrants' understanding of American principles would be to administer the history and politics quiz in their native languages. But she conceded federal authorities would probably not do that, especially in a climate where advocates of stricter immigration policies say aspiring citizens should have better English than the current test requires.

Aguilar and others say they want more, not fewer, immigrants to become citizens, and they are confident the test can be made more meaningful without growing more difficult.

''It is not complicated political theory, but the real basic rudiments of free government," said Matthew Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The new test must be accompanied by an effort to better prepare immigrants to take it, Spalding and others said. That effort should begin as soon as immigrants arrive, said Jeff Chenoweth, national programs director at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a legal assistance organization based in Washington.

''I think too many people are trying to make the test be the be-all and end-all in evaluating immigrant integration," he said. ''We need to provide immigrants with language services, civics education, an appreciation for American values . . . early on."

The US Department of Education currently provides about $70 million annually for literacy and civics classes. The Office of Citizenship, funded entirely by immigration application fees, has a national budget of about $3.2 million for citizenship programs this year. The office plans to offer more resources for education by 2008, said spokesman Shawn Saucier, but the source of these funds has not yet been decided.

In Massachusetts, a state citizenship assistance program established in 1997 lost its funding in the state budget of 2001. Advocates are lobbying on Beacon Hill to have it restored to $5 million a year, so that many more immigrants might get the training Hamrani and the Kasos receive at the International Institute, which receives a small portion of its funding from state and federal grants.

Providing that extra help is as American a value as equality and freedom of speech, Chenoweth said.

''Let's live up to our heritage as a nation of immigrants [that] helps people through the process," Chenoweth said. ''So that we don't see, as the years go by, a disparity between the haves and have-nots, where some obtain citizenship because of financial ability, or language ability, or access to assistance."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company. 20 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The Boston Globe of Sunday, January 22, 2006.

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