The Bush Administration says it plans to revamp the naturalization tests given to prospective new U.S. citizens. The tests cover basic questions regarding U.S. history, governance and civic responsibility, but have been criticized as arbitrary, arcane and virtually meaningless to those who must take them.
Venezuelan-born Alejandro Escalona became a U.S. citizen last year. He vividly remembers the tests he had to take.
"The questions were very easy. For example: name the original 13 states [of the Union]. Who is the governor of your state? The colors of the [American] flag, you know: red, white and blue," Mr. Escalona says.
He also remembers the English-language proficiency test, which consisted of one astoundingly easy task. He was asked to write the following.
"'It is raining now in Baltimore.' So, I wrote it. It was a little silly," he says.
Mr. Escalona says the tests were, in his words, "better than nothing." But he says the testing process should be more meaningful to those joining the ranks of American citizens.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service agrees. Alfonso Aguilar, who heads the Office of Citizenship, says the tests will be overhauled over the next year.
"We need to improve content so that it [the test] is not based on trivial facts, but actual, substantive civic content that emphasizes basic history, our system of government and citizenship rights and responsibilities," Mr. Aguilar says.
As an example, Mr. Aguilar notes that the current naturalization test asks who wrote the U.S. Declaration of Independence. He says knowing the answer to that particular question, Thomas Jefferson, is less important than understanding the basic concept of the declaration itself: that all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"We are not going to give away citizenship. We are not going to naturalize people just like that [without standards]. But if a person studies for the exam and shows an attachment to the nation and to our constitutional principles, then they should be able to pass," Mr. Aguilar says.
Currently more than 90-percent of test-takers pass the exam, and more than 400,000 people became naturalized U.S. citizens last year. Mr. Aguilar says the goal is not to make the tests more difficult or to erect any sort of barrier to citizenship, just to make the tests more relevant to would-be new citizens.
The Citizenship and Immigration Service is conducting a feasibility study of how to proceed in making alterations, and says it will proceed with input from academics, immigrant-serving organizations and test-takers themselves. The goal is to have the redesigned tests in place by January 2007.