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Government redesigns citizenship test

WASHINGTON—The exam that immigrants must pass to become U.S. citizens is being redesigned to ensure new Americans are as familiar with the concept of democracy as they are with the number of stars in the flag.

Immigration officials who unveiled 144 potential new questions Thursday—which will be tried out in 10 pilot cities—said the changes weren't designed to make the test more or less difficult, "but more meaningful."

"We want to get away from rote memorization," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "When you raise your hand and swear allegiance to the United States, you really ought to know what you are swearing your allegiance to. Citizenship is more than just test taking."

Those who work with immigrants, however, said they fear some of the questions may be too tough for immigrants who lack grounding in civics or U.S. history.

"We want to encourage people to become citizens and the last thing we want to do is scare them away," said Tammy Fox Isicoff, an immigration attorney in Miami. "I think they are trying to raise the bar for becoming a citizen. We do want our citizens to understand the essence of what they are becoming, but does it make you a lesser citizen to not know what Susan B. Anthony did?"

Among the questions she singled out for ridicule: "What is the current minimum wage in the United States?" (Answer: $5.15.)

Immigrants applying for citizenship will be asked to volunteer as test pilots for the new questions in 10 cities beginning early next year. The cities are Miami; Albany, N.Y.; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Denver; El Paso, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; San Antonio; Tucson, Ariz.; and Yakima, Wash. There are no pilot cities in California, one of the states with the largest population of immigrants, but officials said the cities were chosen as a representative sample of the United States, based on geography and volume of citizenship applications.

The agency is hoping for 5,000 volunteers to take the revised test, Gonzalez said. Applicants who choose to answer pilot questions can switch back to the current exam if they get a pilot question wrong. They still will be allowed two chances to take the original test.

Gonzalez said the pilot program will allow the agency to work out problems with the questions and narrow them to 100 before taking the test nationwide in 2008. The citizenship test—in which applicants must successfully answer six out of 10 questions—now has a pass rate of about 85 percent for the first go-around and 95 percent for the re-take. Immigration officials said they would look to match that rate.

The revisions have been years in the making, spurred by recommendations made in the mid-1990s by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which called for the "Americanization" of immigrants so that they could better integrate into mainstream American life.

A variety of groups with interest in immigration—including some that want tougher immigration rules—were consulted as the agency developed the questions, aimed at seeing that immigrants understand American democracy, Gonzalez said.

Edwina Hoffman, an instructional supervisor with the Miami-Dade County schools, said she expects the new questions to be more challenging, but she suggested that instructors who work with immigrants should be teaching about civics and history.

"It's not onerous and certainly with instruction, people can pass," she said.

She noted that some groups had "wanted to make it much tougher and exclusionary.

"Some of the early versions were a lot more challenging and that raised a lot of concerns," Hoffman said. "I'm glad they heard from the field that that was not going to work."

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which backs tougher immigration restrictions, called the new questions an improvement—"there's a little more depth than just asking, `What is the color of the flag?'"

He rejected suggestions that immigrants shouldn't have to answer tough questions about becoming an American.

"Just because most Americans can't answer some of these questions doesn't mean we're not right to hold those who want to be Americans to a higher standard," Stein said. "It's important new citizens understand what is special about the American experiment."

Read the sample questions at:



Here are some of the new potential questions on the immigration exam:

1. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution?

2. Why do we have three branches of government?

3. What are "inalienable rights?"

4. What did Susan B. Anthony do?

5. Who does a U.S. senator represent?


1. The Bill of Rights

2. So no branch is too powerful.

3. Individual rights that people are born with.

4. She fought for women's rights.

5. All citizens in that senator's state.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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