Make Known Unknown (Blog 9)

America: “Hey, I’ll trade ya some rights for the wrong answers!”


As I fill out my visa and xerox my passport in preparation for a semester abroad in Granada, Spain, I can’t help but meditate on what it means to be an American. I will be leaving the land of Big Macs, Coca-Cola, and Miley Cyrus for… salsa dancing, sangria, and siestas? Really, I don’t know what world I am venturing into! Curious (and anxious) about the concept of starting anew in an unknown country, I came across a ProPublica article entitled “How I Passed my US Citizenship Test: By Keeping the Right Answers to Myself“. In this story Dafna Linzer, a formally Canadian citizen (now American) tells her experience with the American citizenship process. It’s comical, shocking, and touching as Linzer describes the test that was required of every candidate to take–and all of its fallacies and flaws. As she studied the government-issued flashcards she discovered that many ‘official answers’ were incomplete or entirely wrong. Here’s just one example:

“Question 16: Who makes the federal laws?

Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was incomplete. The official answers were: “Congress”; “Senate and House (of representatives)”; “(U.S. or national) legislature.” I’m not a lawyer but even Canadians watched Schoolhouse Rock. Where, I wondered, was the president, whose signature is what makes a bill into a law?”

After fielding many of Linzer’s concerns, her immigration lawyer said “If you get asked that question, just give the official answer”. And so when getting asked the question “What does the Declaration of Independence do?” she followed suit and responded with the official answer, “declare our independence”.

After answering 6 out of a possible 10 questions correctly Linzer moved on to the English proficiency aspect of the test. She was asked to read aloud “Columbus Day is in October”…and then write the same sentence. Boom: proficient.

My favorite part of the test, however, were the concluding questions which included:

“Was I a member of the Communist Party? Was I member of a totalitarian party? Am I a terrorist? 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? …[Was I] a habitual drunkard, a polygamist, a drug-smuggler, a felon, a tax-evader[?]”

So now I ask myself. Is this what it means to be an American? Columbus Day is in October and the Declaration of Independence declares our independence?  But thank god I haven’t worked for the Nazi government in the past or I would really have been done for!

Although I see this article as a funny spin on the citizenship process, I still have to ask: Is my citizenship a joke? While I appreciated the humor, I was appalled that this process wasn’t an SNL skit. Being an American is a wonderful thing and I am all for welcoming immigrants to the US with open arms, but something just doesn’t feel right here. After reading I was left with a sort of odd emptiness, not sure whether to laugh or cry at this ridiculousness. This country is a great one, but shouldn’t we stop asking people if they conspired with the Nazi’s?

So i’ve RED it. I WHrITE it now. But I’m still a bit BLUE. (I just couldn’t help myself!) America.

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6 thoughts on “America: “Hey, I’ll trade ya some rights for the wrong answers!”

  1. Kate,
    I’m really glad you wrote about this topic because I am completely uninformed about gaining citizenship in the United States. It seems like the procedures and questions are outdated. Did you find any information on potential reform?

  2. I agree that the questions you mentioned are completely outdated and ridiculous. What kinds of things do you think should be asked? I think a general understanding of the political and voting process is a good place to start.

  3. I actually laughed while reading this, because those questions just seem ridiculous. I guess since I was born a citizens I never thought about the process one must go through to obtain citizenship, but I agree that something is not right. Before reading this post I always thought it was a grueling process one had to go through…guess not!

  4. What is particularly jarring about this sham of a citizenship test and process is that while certain elements of our political system (I’m looking at you Republicans) make a lot of noise about immigration and all the problems with illegal or undocumented immigration, no one can be bothered to make sure the normal route reflects the importance and seriousness we attach to the idea of citizenship.

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