By Ben Joravsky

Many of the refugees and immigrants at the Chinese Mutual Aid Association office in Uptown climbed mountains and crossed oceans to reach America. Then came the hard part–the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s citizenship exam.

“We have clients who would rather not become citizens than take the test,” says Grace Hou, executive director of the association. “It’s not just that the test is hard–I think there are a lot of native-born Americans who would have trouble with it. It’s also that it’s not relevant to anything in their lives or anything about life in Chicago.”

Today’s immigrants are not the first to complain about the citizenship exam. Chicagoans in their 70s can recall sitting around the kitchen table with their immigrant parents during the Depression years, trying to get them to memorize the three branches of government.

But the tide of criticism has been rising lately, flooding community groups and congressional aides. It’s a new variation on the common lament about the mindlessness and meaninglessness of standardized testing.

The citizenship exam culminates a long bureaucratic process. “To become a citizen you have to have lived here as a legal permanent resident for at least five years,” says Dale Asis, coordinator for the Coalition of African, Asian and Latino Immigrants of Illinois. “Applicants have to fill out the application form, which is called the N-400, and pay a $25 fingerprinting fee and a $250 application fee.”

The N-400 is supposed to weed out criminals, subversives, and deviants. The section labeled “additional eligibility factors” asks applicants: “Have you ever: a. been a habitual drunkard? b. advocated or practiced polygamy? c. been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution? d. knowingly and for gain helped any alien to enter the U.S. illegally? e. been an illicit trafficker in narcotic drugs or marijuana?”

The “allegiance to the U.S.” section asks: “If the law requires it, are you willing to bear arms on behalf of the U.S.?”

Once the application’s completed, the applicants wait. “And wait and wait and wait to be called in to take the exam,” says Hou. “There’s a year or two year backlog.”

On the day of the test, applicants report to an INS office and meet with an “adjudicator” who asks 10 questions from a list of 100. “All of the groups that work with immigrants and refugees have the questions,” says Asis. “We’re encouraged to have our students literally memorize the questions and the answers.”

Among the questions: “How many stars are there on our flag?” “What color [sic] are the stripes?” “Can you name the thirteen original colonies?” “Which countries were our allies during World War II?” “Who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner?” “What is the name of the ship that brought the Pilgrims to America?”

Then there are the unexpected questions made up by the adjudicators.

“They’re not supposed to ask their own questions but they do,” says Hou. “We had a student who was asked, ‘Who was the governor in 1990-’91?’ We had another student who was asked, ‘Who was the mayor of Chicago in 1987?’ Why 1987? I don’t know. It’s a trick question because we had two mayors that year–Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer. Actually we had three if you count David Orr, and I’m not sure we should count Orr because he was an interim mayor. For that matter, wasn’t Sawyer also an interim mayor? I don’t know. Who knows the correct answer? All that matters is what the INS says is the correct answer.”

For the record, Eugune Sawyer was called “acting mayor,” but even some answers that seem obvious are not. For instance, France was an ally of the U.S. in World War II, at least according to the answer sheet provided to applicants by the INS. But France was occupied by the Germans during most of the war and did not contribute a national army to the Allied cause. “I don’t think the INS cares about the right answer,” says Asis. “The INS has a dual role. It gives benefits and it patrols the border. So there’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aspect to the INS–it’s a nice guy giving benefits and a hard guy kicking people out. I think the border mentality sometimes oozes into the service component.”

The final portion of the test requires applicants to show some proficiency in English by writing several sentences (such as “America is the home of the free”) dictated by the adjudicators.

“The whole process is bizarre,” says Hou. “We’ve got applicants in their late 80s. And we have to ask them, ‘Have you ever been a prostitute?’ Or, ‘Are you a polygamist?’ Jay Leno did a skit where he went around asking people some of the questions on the test and they couldn’t get it right. They were telling Leno, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.'”

Applicants who pass the test must wait another six months or so before being sworn in. “There’s been a huge backlog since the welfare reform law of 1996,” says Asis. “That law denied many basic health and pension benefits for noncitizens.”

Hou would like to make the test less arbitrary. “I wonder what any of it means,” she says. “What are we preparing citizens for? Do we want citizens to truly know the history of the U.S., or do you want them to recite a few facts like robots? Some of the people will memorize the sounds of the words they will be asked and the sounds of the answers they’re supposed to recite. What’s the benefit of that? Becoming a citizen is a valuable privilege. But if you want people to appreciate the importance of that privilege, let them learn the history in their own language. We want them to become productive, voting citizens. I’m not saying it should be an open-door policy. It should be tough but it shouldn’t be silly.”

The INS thinks such criticism is wild overstatement. Yes, there are delays, but that’s to be expected with about a million applicants for citizenship a year. And true, the INS is vigilant. But shouldn’t it be? Do we want to knowingly admit Nazis or communists or drug dealers (or polygamists) into our country?

As for the test itself, what’s wrong with forcing immigrants to know the meaning of symbols such as our flag and a few basic facts about our history and government? If some of the information seems arbitrary, if the test takers immediately forget what they’ve learned, well, that happens with all tests.

“It’s important for the person who is devoting his life to this country to learn how the government works,” says Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the INS office in Chicago. “We don’t know how many people flunk the test. We haven’t done a tracking. If they don’t pass they can take it again. If they don’t pass the second time they can reapply for citizenship.

“Listen, I know it’s not an easy test. I’ve given it to some people who have lived here all their lives, including people who went to Northwestern University, and they didn’t do so well. But when applicants pass they know it means something. You wouldn’t want it to be too easy, would you?”

George Schmidt Has Left the Building

In another matter involving controversial exams, dissident teacher George Schmidt is counterattacking the Board of Education.

This fight began months ago when the board and schools CEO Paul Vallas required freshmen and sophomores to take the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE), a standardized exam intended to hold teachers and students accountable for the classroom lessons they’re supposed to teach or learn. From the start CASE was criticized by teachers and students as a waste of time. To substantiate these accusations, Substance, the maverick newspaper Schmidt edits, printed a portion of the exam in its January/February issue.

The board sued, arguing that Schmidt had misappropriated “trade secrets” and must pay the $1 million a new test would cost. Schmidt was transferred out of his classroom at Bowen High School and sent to “Camp Beverly,” the central-office detention center for employees accused of misconduct. On March 5 a board hearing officer suspended him without pay. Schmidt hasn’t had a paycheck since March 12.

“Three hours after my board hearing they sent a security person up to Camp Beverly with a note saying, ‘You are hereby suspended without pay effective immediately,'” says Schmidt. “The guard was under orders to escort me out of the building. When we got to the entrance he said into his walkie-talkie, ‘The subject has left the building.'”

Schmidt has appealed the suspension and countersued Vallas and the board, arguing that they violated his First Amendment rights. He’s seeking “compensatory damages in an amount to be determined at trial” and “punitive damages in an amount in excess of $1 million.”

Schmidt’s appeal for assistance has so far netted over 200 checks, many from sympathetic teachers. But he recognizes that the board has a big advantage when it comes to paying for legal battle. “They’re spending our tax dollars so they can just drag this thing out forever,” he says. “Let’s say I win my hearing and get my paycheck restored. The board can just appeal and I’m still suspended without pay. I think they were really trying to put Substance out of business. But we’re hanging in there. Our April issue is coming out today.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.