Saturday, October 06, 2007

Testing times for immigrants: full text

Testing times for immigrants

Guardian Comment is Free

What's new, old, fair and unfair about the revamped US citizenship test.
Ian Williams

October 5, 2007 7:00 PM | Printable version

The US immigration and naturalisation service has unveiled new questions for aspirant citizens and candidly warns that it is aware that the "questions sometimes have answers not listed here." It does not say what happens to any enterprising applicant who offers such deviant answers.

People who are born in the US can get away with thinking the Bill of Rights is a chapter from the Communist Manifesto, or that Montana is near Brazil, but those who come to it late have to jump through hoops that don't usually cover the exit of an American womb.

The new test is more flexible than the old one, which had all the limitations of any multiple-choice questionnaire dealing with the complexities of reality. And it even covers geography, not generally the native-borns' strongest point.

I took the old test after 9/11. I had been a resident "alien of extraordinary ability," a position I had luckily attained just as Madeleine Albright's state department were checking whether I was entitled to be writing rude things about her in American newspapers.

However, after 9/11, the US supreme court had effectively ruled that green-card holders had no constitutional rights. Only senators Robert Byrd and Russ Feingold, dissenters to the US Patriot Act, stood between me and John Ashcroft, and so I applied for naturalization.

As soon as I looked up the required questions and answers I realised that they were testing proficiency in doublethink - no bad introduction to the post 9/11 security state. If the immigration officer says he's holding up five fingers and you see only four, you give him the answer he wants: "Five."

Luckily, when I took the old test, I had an indulgent officer who allowed me to be a smart-arse (Whoops! Un-American spelling, drop a point). For example I was asked to name the cause of the civil war.

So I replied: "Do you want the version that most of the Republican party now seems to believe, or the version that they used to have when Abraham Lincoln was a card-carrying member?"

"Let's try both," he said patiently. So I explained that for most of the southern Democrats now turned GOP, the war was about states' rights, and for the northern Republicans now turned Democrats, it was about slavery."

He asked what I thought. "Well the only reason they wanted states' rights was to keep slaves. They didn't believe in them when they passed laws forcing free states to return fugitive slaves." So I came to the correct answer: "Slavery."

Now, I am not sure whether the answers in the new test reflect historical debate, or whether they are pandering to the old south that has hijacked Lincoln's old party. They invite you to "Name one problem that led to the civil war," and now accept "slavery", "economic reasons", or "states' rights".

The original question "Why did the pilgrim fathers come to America?" - to which I had replied: "Officially because they wanted religious freedom. But in fact it was because they were a bigoted bunch of religious fundamentalists who wanted to persecute heretics, Catholics, adulterers, Jews, and Episcopalians, but weren't allowed to do so at home" - has now been replaced by an anodyne question about what motives impelled immigrants to come to the US.

One old question that I really liked has disappeared from the new test: "Who said 'Give me liberty or give me death'?" To which I replied: "I believe it was a well known slave owner from Virginia, Patrick Henry." It is true that he did deplore slavery, but owned them anyway "drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them."

Henry's part in the pantheon has been replaced by Benjamin Franklin, about whom one is supposed to remember one of a few significant facts - not including, I note, his advice to libidinous young men to try to score with older women because "they are so grateful."

The old joke has it that a black sharecropper in Alabama tried to vote and for his literacy test was given Pravda to read. "Well, I know what that's sayin'," he told the shocked white official. "Ain't many black folk voting this year."

At least the old exam was more like a memory test. All you had to do was memorise 100 questions and fixed answers. The new test no longer asks for the colours of the flag, and it is just a tad less Disneyish in its approach to history, but it dangerously allows for more subjectivity in scoring on the part of the examiner. One can't help wondering in some parts of the country, how many Muhammad Does will not do so well.

The very first new question is inviting a dissident approach: "What is the supreme law of the land?" The expected answer is "the constitution," whereas any realist would add, "unless deemed inessential by the White House." Almost as soon as I had a US passport, my fellow citizen Jose Padilla was locked up at the president's whim.

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