US citizenship: not a trivial question

"What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?" That's a sample question on the current citizenship test, which is being revised. The query is meaningful, requiring some familiarity with constitutional rights. But not all of the test questions are so thought provoking.

Others seem more a quiz of historical trivia than of understanding. Or they're an exploration of the obvious or mindless. Some examples: "Who said 'Give me liberty or give me death'?"; "What color are the stars in our flag?"; "What is the name of the President's official home?"

The US Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services is moving in the right direction by pushing aspiring citizens toward a better understanding of the democratic and civic principles that underlie American society.

A revised pilot test will be distributed this winter in 10 cities, including Miami, Boston, and Tucson, Ariz. Immigrants who volunteer to take the new test will have to answer questions that delve more deeply into the meaning of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The test will roll out nationally in 2008.

Impetus for the new test came from a bipartisan congressional commission that studied immigration issues in the 1990s. The commission, headed by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas, underscored "effective Americanization of new immigrants, the cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy and equal opportunity."

The US is not the only country to grapple with citizenship tests that aim to improve the "shared commitment" of naturalized citizens to their new country's "values."

In recent years, several countries in Europe have adopted citizenship tests, which try to better integrate newcomers. The tests vary greatly from country to country, but they all have to do with establishing acceptance of a country's common values.

But what is meant by "values"? On a continent dealing with a culture clash between Muslim immigrants and Europeans, some of the tests gauge a would-be citizen's cultural values.

In the German state of Baden-Württemberg, for instance, interviewers probe applicants about their views on gays and women. Such questions seem targeted at Muslims and intended to weed them out.

Thankfully, this is not the direction that the new US test takes. America thrives on its cultural diversity, its freedom of thought and religious practice. What is properly being tested is the understanding of civic values – the democratic principles and citizen responsibilities – that make such freedom possible.

The new US questions have not yet been released, but there's concern that they'll be too difficult for some immigrants. It should be remembered, though, that immigrants have a great desire for citizenship, and study hard to achieve it. And there are already many substantial questions on the current test (the answer to the "most important right" question, by the way, is "the right to vote" – a right that helps protect the other rights).

A test with more meaning and less trivia will benefit America's new citizens, and their country.

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