Civics, English tests vary widely for citizenship applicants
Apr. 16, 1997
WASHINGTON (AP) _ To become an American citizen, Yolanda Bolanos of Maryland had to answer three questions about the U.S. government and write the sentence, ``How is the day today?''
In Virginia, Marina Sanchez had to come up with correct answers for seven of 10 questions on a written civics test and read aloud a sentence in English.
An immigration officer in California fired 10 questions at Juan Noguera, including fairly tough ones like: ``How many amendments are there to the Constitution?'' (Answer: 27.)
On two of the most dreaded requirements for immigrants seeking citizenship, English proficiency and knowledge of American civics, testing varies state to state, city to city, even examiner to examiner.
``It's the luck of the draw,'' says Blossom Chen, a teacher who helps immigrants at the E. Manfred Evans Community Adult School in Los Angeles.
The government's fuzzy test guidelines are getting more attention at a time when the number of citizenship applications is increasing wildly in response to the new welfare law and a crackdown on illegal immigrants. An estimated 1.8 million people will apply for citizenship this year, up from 300,000 in 1992.
Struggling to keep up, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has hired a consulting firm to do a $4.3 million review of the naturalization process from application to oath _ the third such study in three years.
Immigrant advocates and experts say qualified applicants sometimes fail because their accents are too heavy for the examiner to understand, an examiner simply has had a bad day or because they can't answer obscure questions such as ``What is the Ninth Amendment?'' (Answer: It states that Americans may enjoy rights not mentioned in the Constitution.)
Yin-Man Che recently sat down with an immigration officer in Los Angeles who quizzed him about matters on his application such as the Constitution, polygamy, allegiance, drugs and the armed forces.
``I replied, but the examiner just stared at me,'' recalled the 68-year-old retired Chinese cook. ``The examiner looked at me in a blank way and said `goodbye.' So I said `goodbye' back and left.''
He will have to be retested.
Ms. Chen suspects the INS examiner was put off by Che's heavy accent and his sometimes dogmatic manner of speaking. He often says, staccato-style: ``I want to be citizen of United States!''
David Rosenberg, an official at INS headquarters in Washington, acknowledged that the discretion given to immigration officers has resulted in inconsistencies but said: ``we're now moving forward with a full-scale, complete soup-to-nuts re-engineering program.''
The variance in testing was highlighted in a report last year by the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Washington.
Twenty of 33 INS district offices gave oral civics tests, two gave written exams, eight did it both ways and three said their test format varies, the center found. Results also varied widely on the numbers of questions asked and the percentages of right answers required to pass.
Walter Schmidt, an INS adjudications officer in Houston, said the law does not specify how many questions to be asked, but he said the official flexibility tends to benefit the applicants.
``We do bend over backwards to help the applicants, especially if they are nervous or all of a sudden draw a blank,'' he said.
Giving only written tests, or standardizing them in some other way, could work against immigrants from countries that do not have westernized styles of education, he said.
In Washington, Rosenberg said the agency doesn't want to make civics tests harder or easier but is considering asking more relevant questions.
Instead of ``Who is the current chief justice of the Supreme Court?'' maybe applicants should be asked ``What does the high court do?'' he said.
``I had a friend who was asked the significance of the Ninth Amendment,'' he said. ``The person, who had two master's degrees earned in the United States, ran out in tears.''
The law also doesn't set an English-language standard.
``There was not one office or examiner that had the same philosophy as the next,'' according to a 1995 report by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Sarasota, Fla. ``One examiner said, `It is not my goal to deny them.' Another said, `You have to be very vigilant, or they'll all cheat.'''
A third report, written by INS consultant PRC Inc., said time could be saved if immigrants schooled in the United States did not have to take the English and civics tests. It also said any attempt to redesign the system should try to make the agency more friendly.
``Many of the individuals working in naturalization have played roles as law enforcement officials and there is an ambiance, subtle but pervasive, of enforcement surrounding today's processes,'' the report said.
INS spokesman Greg Gagne said immigration workers are under incredible stress and sometimes get testy, despite efforts to train and sensitize them. Immigrant advocates say it's more than stress: They say some examiners do little to hide their own coolness to foreigners.
``Some adjudicators have actively gone beyond the standard questions, asking immigrants why they have so many children, or why are they in the United States,'' said Ming Leung of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium.