‘How I passed my U.S. citizenship test’

Dafna Linzer passed her U.S. citizenship test, but some of the official right answers were wrong, she writes on ProPublica.

Take Question 36. It asks applicants to name two members of the president’s Cabinet. Among the correct answers is “Vice President.” The vice president is a cabinet-level officer but he’s not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members are unelected heads of executive departments [4], such as the Defense Department, or the State Department.

Question 12 asks: What is the “rule of law”?

There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services introduced a new test, which covers history and civics, in 2008. Applicants must answer correctly six of 10 randomly selected questions (from a list of 100). They also must pass a simple reading and writing test to show English proficiency.

Question 55 “tugged at my heart,” Linzer writes: What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy? Among the correct answers: “write to a newspaper.”

At my interview, I was asked questions on presidential succession, the Cabinet, Senate terms, and the Supreme Court. I was asked to name a branch of government. (I went with the executive.)

I was asked Question 8: What did the Declaration of Independence do?

Heeding my lawyer’s advice, I went with the official answer: “declared our independence.”

A native Canadian, she read aloud: “Columbus Day is in October.” The same sentence comprised the writing test. She passed.

She affirmed that she is not a Communist, a terrorist or a member of a totalitarian party.

Although I was born in 1970, I was asked: Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did I work for or associate in any way with the Nazi government of Germany? Had I worked at a concentration camp?

She passed that one too.

On Friday, Jan. 28, accompanied by my family, I was among 160 citizens-in-waiting who filed into a 3rd floor auditorium in lower Manhattan to be sworn in as Americans. On our seats were an American flag, a copy of the Constitution, a booklet featuring the stories of prominent naturalized Americans, and a welcome letter from President Obama.

Reading the letter, I began to cry. I had spent more than one-quarter of my life hoping to become American, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the honor and the significance of the moment. The place I have called home for 12 years was finally claiming me as well.

I looked around the room and saw other fortunate souls with long journeys now behind them, quietly weeping with joy.

Great Aunt Lillian, also born in Canada, came to the U.S. as a young girl.  She delayed applying for U.S. citizenship because the courthouse in Winkler, Manitoba had burned down, destroying all the birth records. After 50 or so years in the U.S., Lillian wrote to Winkler, sorted out the missing birth certificate and applied for citizenship.  The examiner asked one question: “When was the Louisiana Purchase?”

“Oh, that was a long time ago,” Lillian said.

“That’s right!” said the examiner.

And so Great Aunt Lillian became an American.

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  1. Sigivald says:

    I hesitate to say that Judge Posner is “wrong”, but … it may be that his definition and insistence on that particular meaning are due not to the phrase having only, solely, or even primarily that particular meaning, but that he is a judge, and that’s the meaning he is most often exposed to and is most relevant to him.

    A quick search to confirm my impression of the use of the term confirms that general usage is against Posner’s very specific definition and much in agreement with “the Government is bound by the Laws”.

    Far too many of her objections are equally irrelevant – the obvious “but nigglingly wrong, sorta, if you’re ultra-pedantic” answer are, well, right.

    (Writing to a newspaper is “participating in our Democracy”, since it engages in political discourse with other citizens. Letters to the editor have a long and storied history, do they not?

    Likewise with the VP niggle – he’s “cabinet level”, so why the complaint that he’s not part of “the Cabinet” in another sense?

    What the hell is she even complaining about? That the citizenship test is not full of extra-hard trick questions meant to weed out non-lawyers?)

  2. Bill Leonard says:

    I found the “affirmation” question interesting. It brought back memories of my experience in the US Army.

    For the record: I am a US citizen, born at home on a dirt road on the outskirts of Des Moines in 1943. My forbears have been here since before the American Revolution; indeed, I can trace ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.

    That said, my military experience was, …er, entertaining when it came to the declarations and affirmations.

    For instance: To be both inducted and to qualify for a final Top Secret security clearance, I had to affirm that I had never been a member of: the German-American Bund; the Black Dragon Society; the Communist Party (of course); the Committee to Free Bosnia-Herzgovina; the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; or the Committee to Free Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among others.

    Note again that I was born in 1943, hence I could not possibly have been a member of any of those organizations except the Communist Party, and possibly the Committee to Free Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (I was 11 when they were executed.)

    And so it goes…