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Testing for Citizenship By: Henry Mark Holzer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 29, 2006


On August 9, 1994, former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, then Chair of the United States Commission on Immigration Reform, told the House Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources, that “[t]he Commission believes that legal immigration has been and can continue to be a strength of this country.  Most legal immigrants are the spouses, children, parents, or siblings of a U.S. citizen or long-term permanent resident.  A smaller number are sponsored by businesses that need their skills and talents.  We take an affirmative decision to admit these individuals. It is with the expectation and desire that they will be integrated immediately into our social community and, eventually, through naturalization, into the political community as well.  (Emphasis added.) 

Regrettably, the Commission’s optimistic, even noble, expectation and desire has been unfulfilled. 

As Victor Davis Hansen in Mexifornia, Patrick J. Buchanan in State of Emergency, and countless others in books, articles, blogs, and speeches have conclusively documented, assimilation of immigrants, illegal as well as legal, has mostly not occurred.  In my review of Mr. Buchannan’s book (www.henrymarkholzer.com), I wrote: “Within our southwestern states, we have non-assimilated populations in ‘cities’ within cities, where one has no sense that he is in the United States of America.  For example, Buchanan reports that ‘[t]hree million people of Mexican ancestry today call L.A. County home, and half of all its residents—54 percent—speak a language other than English in their homes, up from 49 percent in 1990.  When more than half the people of so vast a county do not speak English at home, do not listen to the same radio and TV programs as the rest of us, do not read the same newspapers, magazines, or books, do not share the same heroes, history or holidays, how can we say that we are all still one nation and one people?’”

There are many reasons for this—among them ignorance, fear, illiteracy, criminality, poverty, cultural differences, native country chauvinism—and an oft-overlooked reason: the systemic weakness in our naturalization process.

We allow foreigners (for that’s what immigrants are) to become American citizens with virtually no proof that they understand (let alone believe in) our history, founding principles, animating political philosophy, and unique constitutional framework.

America’s history is rooted in the Enlightenment, not in the brutal mysticism of ancient cultures.  Our founding principles, now implemented in law and culture, are eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and do not stem from the divine right of kings.  Our political philosophy is that of limited government and individual rights, not collectivist/statist tyranny.  Our constitutional framework rests on federalism, separation of powers, judicial review, and an explicit Bill of Rights, not on authoritarianism or unrestrained majority rule. 

It is this, at the least, which those who would seek naturalization as Americans must understand.

Instead, the current examination for American citizenship asks few if any conceptual questions, and focuses almost entirely on facts: our flag’s colors, and the number of its stars and stripes; dates; the names of public officials; state capitals; location of the White House—and many other equally inane questions. 

At long last, heeding the report issued by Jordan’s Clinton-era Commission— recognizing the importance of “effective Americanization of new immigrants, that is the cultivation of a shared commitment to the American values of liberty, democracy and equal opportunity”—and doubtless spurred by the recent immigration debate, officialdom has finally focused on the naturalization process in general, and on the citizenship examination in particular. 

The result is that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) intends to change the naturalization test.  According to a USCIS spokesperson, “We want to focus more on the building blocks of democracy, rather than the colors of the flag.”  He added that applicants for naturalization should know about, in his words, “freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

Probably anticipating objections from the foreigner/immigration lobbies, the spokesman was quick to sound a reassuring note: “Our goal is not to make this test harder or easier for anyone, but to make it much more meaningful.” 

Easier would not have been possible, except perhaps by asking the color of the White House.  And heaven forbid that the test be harder—for example, by substituting for “What holiday was celebrated for the first time by American colonists?” a question like “What is separation of powers and why is it important to a functioning republic?”

Making the test “much more meaningful” is simply a nod to today’s touchy-feely political correctness, which dictates that all human experience be “meaningful.”

However, even the USCIS’s equivocation hasn’t satisfied the foreigner/immigration lobbies.  Although the new test won’t be “harder or easier,” even though it will assuredly be “meaningful,” although it won’t be used until January 2008, although the 125 current questions will be reduced to 100 in a pilot program between now and then, and although a grade of 60 will be sufficient to pass, still, the foreigner/immigration lobbies quickly jumped the government.

According to the Washington Times, “More than 220 immigrant organizations, led by the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, have signed a letter to USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez denouncing the new test, which they worry will make it harder for ‘poorer legal immigrants with less English and less education’ to win U.S. Citizenship.  ‘Already immigrants must pass a citizenship test that many native-born Americans could not pass,’ say groups that include the National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United Farm Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.”

Putting aside that most of the usual suspects are those who customarily oppose every measure that would inhibit porous borders and unchecked immigration, that there is not a necessary relationship between economic status and intelligence, and that there should be a necessary relationship between speaking English and becoming a citizen of our English-speaking country, two important points arise from such knee-jerk reactions to the new test.

While it’s true that, sadly, many current American citizens could not pass even the old naturalization test, let alone the new “meaningful” one, those folks are already here, they are already citizens, in all likelihood at least somewhat assimilated, and, unlike the naysayers’  constituencies,  they are not knocking on our door asking to be granted what should be a precious privilege: American citizenship.

A wider point is that even the worst of the open borders, “everyone-gets-in” crowd pays lip service to the idea that American citizenship should be earned.  If we are not to require, as the price of becoming an American citizen, service in our armed forces, contribution of essential skills to our society, or the conferring of other benefits to our country—as we could, and perhaps should—it is morally imperative that those who would walk through our “golden door” do us the honor of understanding America’s unique genesis and institutions. 

To ask less of them is to devalue what we are, and what it has cost us to become the freest, most benevolent, and most moral nation ever to exist.

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Henry Mark Holzer, Professor Emeritus at Brooklyn Law School, is a constitutional lawyer and author most recently of The Supreme Court Opinions of Clarence Thomas, 1991-2006, A Conservative’s Perspective.



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