Her turn finally came during a pandemic, so the U.S.C.I.S. officer brought her into a room with an iPad, and then he went to the room right next to hers and conducted the interview virtually. She got 100 percent of the questions right and on Oct. 23 she was presented with her citizenship papers and a small American flag during a drive-through ceremony in a parking lot beside the Albany airport. The next day, she told me, she voted in the presidential election.
One day I hope to do the same, so I’m taking practice questions when I can. This one caught me out. “What is Alexander Hamilton famous for?” He’s famous for his cool ponytail and for being a breakout star on Broadway, right? Wrong. Apparently he’s famous for being “one of the writers of the Federalist papers.” Not sure what those are, but they sound serious.
Another one is “Name one example of an American innovation.” Voodoo-flavored Zapp’s chips spring to mind, as does unearned confidence. However, neither is included in the list of acceptable answers. Instead: light bulbs, skyscrapers and landing on the moon.
Hernan Prieto is the citizenship program coordinator at Irish Community Services, a nonprofit in Chicago that provides immigration and social services to immigrants of any nationality in the Midwest. Part of his job is preparing immigrants for the civics test. Unlike Senator-elect Tuberville, his students usually get the question about the branches of government right. They are also familiar with some of the names on the test, he told me. They know who Martin Luther King Jr. is and why he is important. Dates trip them up, though.
A green card holder from Argentina, Mr. Prieto hopes to apply for naturalization next year, and he told me he appreciates what he learns alongside other immigrants. Most crucially, studying civics informs would-be Americans of what they stand to gain and what they need to give if they hope to live up to this nation’s earliest motto. They learn that motto too; it’s “E Pluribus Unum” or “Out of many, one.” They learn that equality is promised by the Constitution, that nobody is above the law and that it is a civic duty to vote.
Mr. Prieto treasures that knowledge, but is not convinced that the test itself is helpful. “I don’t know that we need to have a formal test, with 128 questions that you need to learn, and get 12 of them right,” he said. “Do we really need that? What is important for a new citizen is to know their rights and their responsibilities. That is what levels them with other citizens.”
Maeve Higgins (@maevehiggins) is the author of “Maeve in America: Essays by a Girl From Somewhere Else” and a contributing Opinion writer.
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