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The Government’s Idea of what it means to be an American


The Citizenship and Immigration Services has developed a new set of questions for the test that immigrants must take and pass before becoming U.S. citizens. This test casts a light on what the government thinks represents American identity.

Some examples of the questions, given in a news report, are the following:

Q      Why do we have three branches of government?
     So no branch is too powerful.

Q      Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.
     They can vote, call senators or representatives, run for public office, write a letter to a newspaper, join a political party or other possible answers.

Q      Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream for America. what was his dream?
     Equality for all Americans, civil rights or all or other possible answers.

Q      Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.
     All people are created equal; the power of the government comes from the people; the people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights, or other possible answers.

Three other questions asked were: On what day are federal income taxes due? In dollar terms, what is the current minimum wage? What major event occurred on September 11, 2001?

The citizenship test was changed from an emphasis on facts to requiring some conceptual knowledge. For instance, the old test had asked what were the three branches of government (legislature, executive branch, and judiciary). The new test asks “why” the government has three branches.

Emilio T Gonzalez, director of The Citizenship and immigration Services, explained that the questions were designed to be “more profound” and go beyond mere memorization of facts in order to show that applicants for U.S. citizenship really “know what you are swearing allegiance to.”

A news report concluded: “The redesign of the citizenship test is part of a Bush administration effort to promote stronger civic participation and assimilation of immigrants.”

     Some comments:

One hundred and fifty years ago, a citizenship test might have included questions about George Washington, the nation’s first president; and, a hundred years ago, there might have been questions about Abraham Lincoln. It is significant, perhaps, that the new test focuses on Martin Luther King’s ‘dream”.

Dr. Martin Luther King was a political figure, closely identified with a certain kind of politics, which might be called “identity politics” or the politics of racial identification. This kind of politics is most closely associated with the Democratic party although Republicans also participate in it to some extent.

On the other hand, the question about an event which occurred on September 11, 2001, refers to the focal point of Bush Administration policy. The plane attacks on the World Trade Center towers and on the Pentagon have become justification for its “war on terror” and, to some extent, the war in Iraq.

So it would seem that, in an equal-opportunity way, the new citizenship tests politicize the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. Government always wants to slant things its own way. Maybe it’s inevitable that, in a government-administered test, government and politics should be the focal points of American identity.

This web site, on the other hand, contends that, whether or not one is an American, political identity is only a small part of personal identity. We should instead strive for “identity independence”, a self-determined identity that serves our own needs rather than the needs of some institution.

True personal identity flows from our ancestry, from our families and communities, from our religion or beliefs, and from our personal decisions and experiences. This is what motives us to become what we want to be. On the other hand, persons applying for U.S. citizenship should not have to disclose this. Personal identity is essentially private but, when developed to a full extent, others also become involved.

Questions & Answers

The new citizenship test includes these questions and answers:

1. What does “We the People” mean in the Constitution? (The power of the government comes from the people.)
2. Name one thing only the federal government can do?
(print money, declare war, create an army or make treaties)
3. What is the current minimum wage in the United States?
4. What is self-government?
(Powers come from the people, or government responds to the people.)
5. What are “inalienable rights”?
(individual rights that people are born with)
6. Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?
(Two of the following: vote, join a political party, help out with a campaign, join a civic group, join a community group, tell an elected official your opinion on an issue, call your senators and representatives, publicly support or oppose an issue or policy, run for office, or write to a newspaper)
7. When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?
(April 15)
8. What happened at the Constitutional Convention?
(The Constitution was written.)
9. What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?
(Africans or people from Africa)
10. Name one U.S. territory?
(One of the following: American Samoa, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands)

The old test had included these questions and answers:

1. What are the colors of the U.S. flag? (red, white, and blue)
2. What do the stars on the flag mean?
(one for each state)
3. Independence Day celebrates independence from whom?
(independence from Britain)
4. Who elects Congress?
(the citizens of the United States)
5. What are the duties of the Supreme Court?
(to interpret and explain the laws)
6. Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death”?
(Patrick Henry)
7. Name the countries that were our enemies during World War II?
(Germany, Italy, and Japan)
8. What is the executive of a state government called?
(the governor)
9. What is the head executive of a city government called?
(the mayor)
10. Who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner”?
(Francis Scott Key)
11. Which president was the first commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army and Navy?
(George Washington)
12. What was the 50th state to be added to our Union (the United States)?
13. What is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims?
(the Mayflower)
14. What group has the power to declare war?
(Congress has the power to declare war.)
15. Name the amendments that guarantee or address voting rights.
(the 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th amendments)
16. What is the name of the president’s official home?
(the White House)
17. What U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services form is used to apply for naturalized citizenship?
(form N-400 Application for Naturalization)
18. What kind of government does the United States have?
(a republic)
19. Name one of the purposes of the United Nations?
(for countries to discuss and try to resolve world problems or to provide economic aid to many countries)
20. What is the U.S. Capitol? (the place where Congress meets)
21. What is the legislative branch of government
? (Congress)
22. Can the Constitution be changed?
(Yes, the Constitution can be changed.)
23. Why are there 100 senators in the U.S. Senate?
(Each state elects two senators.)
24. What is the introduction to the Constitution called?
(the Preamble)
25. What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?
(the right to vote)
26. In what month is the new president inaugurated?
27. How many times may a senator or congressman be reelected?
(There is no limit.)
28. Who is commander-in-chief of the U.S. military?
(the President)
29. Where does freedom of speech come from?
(the Bill of Rights)
30. Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights?
(all people living in the United States)

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