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Readers React to Our Story on the U.S.’s (Mistake-Filled) Citizenship Test

Readers react to the piece I wrote last week about the U.S. citizenship test.

Hundreds of readers at ProPublica and Slate responded to a piece I wrote last week about the U.S. citizenship test and how some answers were wrong or incomplete. Some readers shared stories of their own journeys toward citizenship. Others wrote about helping their parents or spouses become U.S. citizens. And some readers flagged what they see as additional, problematic or sometimes humorous questions in the test.

Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, pointed out Question 87: Name one American Indian tribe in the United States. Among the correct answers is “Inuit.”

“Although they are Native Americans, the Inuit are not Indians, they do not consider themselves a tribe, and they live in Canada, not the United States,” Lubet wrote. “Their relatives in Alaska typically call themselves Inupiak or Yupik, and they are not mentioned in the model answer to question 87.”

Lubet was an early fact-checker of the test when it was in the pilot phase. He found problems with 19 questions and wrote about them then for Salon.

A number of immigration lawyers wrote that they had been complaining about the current test since it was introduced in late 2008.

Paul Good, an immigration lawyer from Virginia, took tongue-and-cheek issue with Question 78: Name one war fought by the United States in the 1900s. Among the correct answers are Korean War, Vietnam War and (Persian) Gulf War. Good noted that the last time Congress declared war during the 20th century was December, 1941. “Since only Congress, according to the Constitution, can declare war we have been free of war since the end of WWII. At least Truman was aware of the problem since he titled the Korea War a ‘Police Action’.”

Of course, few would dispute that those U.S. military engagements were in fact wars.

Readers went back and forth with regards to the flag and whether the 13 stripes represent 13 original states or the 13 original colonies. The current test says the stripes represent the colonies. I wrote that they represent the states. The dispute touched off a history hunt for readers.

Perhaps folks at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the test, could hunt a bit more too. Question 7 on the citizenship test that was in circulation through the summer of 2008, asked applicants:

What do the stripes on the flag mean? Official Answer: “They represent the original 13 states.”

The flag was adopted in 1777, nearly a year after the Declaration of Independence by the “13 united states of America.” The Flag Act of 1777 doesn’t specify what the stripes and stars represent—just that there are 13 of both. When Vermont and Kentucky later joined the union, two additional stripes and two additional stars were added to the flag and later removed.

A lot of people questioned whether the vice president is elected, and a number of commenters feel that he ought to be in the president’s Cabinet no matter what.

The story fueled intense debates on legal blogs and comments from immigration advocates.

Some wondered how U.S.-born citizens would fare on the test. Judging from the responses, I would say many would do very well.

A friend at the State Department shared a favorite “citizenship” quote dating back to Appomattox. Robert E. Lee had just surrendered. There was an awkward moment. Lee realized that Col. Ely Parker, Ulysses S. Grant’s military aide, who was present in the room, was a Native American . Lee was said to have remarked: “I’m glad to see one real American here.” Parker reportedly replied: “We are all Americans, sir.”

For the English proficiency exam, several readers note that they were given the same sentence for their test that I was given: “Columbus Day is in October.” June Thomas, an editor at Slate, was asked to choose her own sentence when she took the test. "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing," she wrote. “Then I worried that those old-timey words would seem like typos,” she recalled. Fortunately, it all worked out.

Farhad Manjoo, who writes the technology column for Slate, shared his own experience. “It's impossible not to cry when you're being sworn in,” he told readers. “I was a college student, didn't think I'd be moved by it, but the emotion was sudden and powerful. It's an amazing thing to feel like you're accepted in this amazing place.”

Not all ceremonies are alike. I wrote about the moving video message from President Obama that was played at my swearing-in ceremony. That message is played at all USCIS ceremonies. A reader noted that at ceremonies in federal district courts, however, the video is not always played. Indeed, a Slate reader noted that it was not played when her husband was sworn in at a recent ceremony in Baltimore.

Most readers who wrote to me or commented online said they were tickled and then moved by the story. I, in turn, have been moved by their responses. The only swearing-in ceremony that some readers had seen occurred during an episode of “The Simpsons” when Apu took the test. Some said they were now inspired to attend a swearing-in ceremony.

My swearing-in, known as an “administrative ceremony” was a simple affair in a federal building. But USCIS hosts some truly grand ceremonies across the country in spectacular settings. There have been ceremonies at the base of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th of July, at Fenway Park and at the Lincoln Memorial, at Mount Rushmore and Disneyworld, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington and the White House Rose Garden. Ceremonies are open to the public, but few are advertised. USCIS does post information on its website for ceremonies held on July 4th and on Constitution Day.

In an interview about the story with Southern California Public Radio station KPCC, host Madeleine Brand asked me what the experience had taught me about the United States.

I told her of a friend’s reaction to the story. “This is classic democracy,” he said. America is a country where you can have lots of different answers, right answers and wrong answers. In a dictatorship, there may only be one.

A similar sentiment was echoed by another Slate reader: “There is always room for discussion in America. That is truly what our Founding Fathers believed. Welcome to the discussion!”

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