Journalism in the Public Interest

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.


ProPublica senior reporter Dafna Linzer's swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

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!”

James B Storer

March 4, 2011, 12:42 p.m.

I added a comment to your original report to the effect that I thoroughly enjoyed the fine style, love of our nation, and humorous tone of the report.  Although I am quite active in the political process, I was not at all inclined to comment on the accuracy of the various points raised.  First, I do not see relevance in most of the questions (and do not myself know many of the answers, anyhow), so I leave ascertaining the facts to political historians and scholars.
  My problem has to do with my thinking that the purpose of the agency is to maintain order in the massive immigration program, but also to verify that a prospective new citizen is acceptable and desirable to be a U.S. citizen.  I cannot, for the life of me, see how most of the questions have any relevancy whatsoever to the character, dedication, and worth of the applicant as a fellow citizen.  The test seems more like an agencies warped idea of what is “patriotism.”


It could be argued that at least part of the process exists just to prove you want to be a US citizen enough to deal with the hurdles.  They are not claiming residency, like when someone moves from one state to another.  Immigrants are changing national allegiance.  In many cases they are actually giving up citizenship in the nation of their birth (Ghana for example doesn’t allow dual citizenship, or at least didn’t last I checked).  Learning a little of the history of your adopted home can only help you understand the culture that surrounds you.  It may not be truly necessary, but I view it as valuable information none the less.  Then again, I’m a bit of a US history buff so it could just be my personal bias coming through.

I was an infant when my dad took the oath of citizenship circa 1937.
(My mom was born in the USA.)

The story I heard a number of times was:

Judge: “Did you all study for your test?”
Group:  “Yes!”
Judge:  “Good, now raise your right hands”.

James Traynor

March 4, 2011, 5:04 p.m.

Ms. Linzer,
I do hope you didn’t have to give up your Canadian citizenship in making this inauspicious move. If you did, it might be advisable to keep a pair of snowshoes, a rifle and a backpack in the hall closet should the need arise. Good luck, and I’d be happy to welcome you aboard, but I’m busy bailing.

James B Storer

March 4, 2011, 5:29 p.m.

I applaud your response to my comment.  I agree whole-heartedly with your thoughts and philosophy in the matter.  My problem is that I believe the questions to be oriented toward very small technical details that may well be very important to our nation, but not broad enough in scope to be a priority position for testing one who aspires to citizenship.  The fine report brought out, in fact, that even some apparently well learned comments were not always in agreement with answers.  You are interested in history and my concern aims more toward incompetence in the upper realms of government.  Ah, the stuff for healthy and fair debate.  –Skartishu, Granby MO.

That sounds like my drivers test.  I took 4 right turns (1. onto the road from the parking lot, 2. at the first traffic light, 3. at the first stop sign, 4. back into the parking lot at a different point) and then parked (in an angled parking space).  Not sure I approve of either case, but I wasn’t going to complain either.

I have to agree with Ms. Linzer, the debate over the correct answer is as much a defining characteristic of the US political personality as anything else.  In the end understanding of history always comes down to deciding which equally incorrect story to accept/believe.  That fascinates me almost as much as knowing the “accepted” reasons for why things happened the way they did.  That professional bureaucrats were not able to succeed any better than professional historians is not surprising.

Every country has a canonical history devised to build solidarity and morale.  The canonical history exists alongside scientific history, freely contradicting it. 

For authoritarian personalities, the contradictions (if they notice them) don’t matter, while for scientific personalities they are frequently acceptably white lies useful for giving children a chance to grow up in a positive, happy environment (leaving the children to discover the truth for themselves as adults).

Dafna, I enjoyed the original article and noted in this followup your reference to someone using “My Country ‘tis of Thee” as an English proficiency metric. Kids in the US some decades back commonly sung this in elementary school. Is it still used? If so, you’re probably aware, unlike I was at age 6, that the lyrics are sung to the tune of “God Save the King.”
From what little I know of how those lyrics came to be, it doesn’t appear to have been a slight on the Brits.

Steve R   Isn’t “God Save the Queen” that is sung currently? I love to observe the pride of any person as thier national anthem is sung. The recent winter Olympics @ Vancouver it was very moving to watch the Canucks sing O’ Canada.

I vaquely remember my mother coming home from her naturalization ceremony. I was maybe 4. She had to renounce alligence to Germany, which wasn’t hard for her as she was a refugee who barely got out of E. Germany in time.  The actual memory is of the pride and sparkle in her eyes. 

That is just one piece of how I learned what it means to be an American.  George Washington and the cherry tree, Indians and Thanksgiving, and even the gentler, kinder version of the Civil War are the traditional version of history I learned as a kid.  Traditions, even if they are based on myth, are a part of any society. I can’t imagine having learned the whole gorry truth and wanted to remain loyal.

I think that, for better or worse, our rewritten history and a basic understanding of it is part of the developement of an American.  In collage A. History I was taught that it is the nature of historical writing that the victor writes the account.  Then the Scholars get a wack at it every generation or so.

With all our numerous faults (as many as we have citizens), I think that if joining us fills you with pride and lights up your mind, then Welcome!

(and thank you for reminding us that there are some who are doing it the almost-but-not-quite-right way!)

An article in the New York Times of Sunday, 06 March 2011, titled “With Drive (and Without a Law Degree), a Texan Fights for Immigrants”, written by Julia Preston, provides an excellent example of the courage of one person’s fight against the incompetence and heartlessness of the American immigration system.

Law school students assist in the fight for innocent men in the U.S. prison system.  Why can’t a similar effort be organized to help in cases like the one mentioned in the NYT’s article, of Saad Nabeel, and also help concerned citizens like Ralph Isenberg with their efforts?

And how can the President be made aware of this specific case, in the hope of getting some fair treatment for an innocent victim of a completely overwhelmed bureaucracy?

Dafna I am a Canadian who frequently travels to the US.  I have no desire to become an American but I have noticed something interesting about new immigrants who have become American citizens.

In the Oath of Allegiance that all new immigrants must recite there is a passage that says “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen”, so why are these people still carrying their passports from their birth country?

I know they are carrying these passports with their brand new American passport because I always seem to be behind them in line when entering the USA. When it comes time to present their American passport to the Customs official they pull out all their passports to find the American passport.  Some women (who of course are carrying the entire family’s passports) just dump all the passports on the counter and sort out the relevant American passports.  Interestingly the Customs agent doesn’t even blink or comment just accepts the American passport and checks it out. 

Of course I know why the new American citizens retain their old passports, it makes it easier to return to their birth country.  If an American requires a visa to visit China for example, as a citizen of China and now of the USA these new immigrants can simply use their Chinese passport to enter China.  No visa required and they can stay and work as long as they want. 

Dafna no judgement, just a thought for another article.

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