Becoming a Citizen – Part 3 – English

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Immigration 101 tracks my course in Immigration Law at Hofstra University. This is the third in a series looking at the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

Almost everyone who applies for United States Citizenship must demonstrate a knowledge of spoken English and American History and Civics. They also have to able to read and write in English. There are some limited exceptions to this rule, which I’ll get into in another article. These requirements create the most confusion among immigrants and native-born alike with a lot of mis- and dis-information out there.

I often hear Americans say that since there is no “official” language in the U.S., immigrants don’t need to know English to become citizens. In all but a small percentage of cases, this is simply not true. A lot of immigrants tell me that they have not applied for citizenship because they think they need to speak English like a “native”. Also not true.

On the other hand, some immigrants seem to be unaware of the English requirement. A client I was preparing for his citizenship interview asked me why I was speaking to him in English and wondered who his translator at his interview would be. He was surprised when I told him that the interview would be conducted entirely in English.

Being orally examined on a ten page Federal form is a test for anyone’s English, and it is one of the chief ways Naturalization Officers (the folks at Homeland Security who examine citizenship applicants) ascertain whether someone knows English or not! The officers will also ask questions about the immigrant’s life and job to make sure that they are not simply parroting memorized answers. But, contrary to the fears of many immigrants, their does not have to be perfect, unaccented English. What the officers are really looking for is good understanding when the officer speaks to them and a utilitarian vocabulary and grammar that shows competence in the language.

The officer will then ask the immigrant to read out loud several statements in English. My clients have rarely failed this English literacy test. Then the applicant will be asked to write some sentences as the officer dictates them. My clients usually do alright here, but since spelling counts, I have seen folks fail this part. Those who don’t make the grade are given one more chance a couple of months later. If they fail a second time, their application is rejected.

The U.S., like many countries, has a civics and history test for those who want to become citizens. What to ask is always an issue. A few years ago the Conservative government in Australia began asking sports trivia questions as part of its test. The government said that real Australians know their cricket, but critics believe that the questions were there to keep immigrants from becoming citizens and voters.

Here, too, the test is a political battlefield, with Conservatives wanting to make it harder, possibly to cut down on the number of new voters.  In October, 2008 a new test is to be introduced.

The current test is already a source of great anxiety among immigrants. I always thought it was fairly easy, but several years ago I did some work on an exhibit on immigration with the Museums at Stony Brook and they set up a kiosk where museum-goers took the test on a computer. A surprisingly large number of them failed!

There are about 100 possible questions in the test. Officers typically ask ten, with six correct being needed for approval. Here is a sample test. To see how many you get right, I’ve put the answers at the bottom of the page.

1. Who elects the President of the United States?
2. How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution?
3. How many representatives are there in Congress?
4. Who becomes President of the United States if the President and the vice-president should die?
5. Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?
6. Can you name ten of the thirteen original states?
7. What Immigration and Naturalization Service form is used to apply to become a naturalized citizen?
8. In what year was the Constitution written?
9. What is the introduction to the Constitution called?
10. Name the rights guaranteed by the first amendment.

Answers: 1. Electoral College, 2. 27, 3. 435, 4. Speaker of the House of Representative, 5. John Roberts, 6. Mass., N.H., Conn., R.I., N.Y., N.J., Del., Pa., Md., Vir., N.C., S.C., Geo., 7. Form N-400, Application to File Petition for Naturalization, 8. 1787, 9. The Preamble, 10. Freedom of: speech, press, religion, peaceable assembly, and requesting change of the government.

Read other parts of this series:

Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.


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