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It Isn’t Your Mother’s Citizenship Test

What follows is a generalized explanation of how someone acquires US citizenship and the history and civics test required of those who do not acquire US citizenship through birth. There are many special provisions and exceptions, but I am not writing a law review article. It is also sufficiently vague to require potential citizenship applicants to have to read the instructions or to retain counsel regarding their individual situation.

US citizenship through birth

It is fairly well settled that someone born to at least one US citizen parent, whether in the US or abroad, or who is born while physically present in the US is a US citizen once she or he emerged from her/his mother’s womb. The latter group is the subject of current debate which turns on the provision in the 14th (or, in Constitutional and Super Bowl terms, XIV) Amendment to the constitution stating that [a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” I bolded the provision which the fuss is over since some set forth an argument that undocumented immigrants (i.e.”illegal aliens”) are not subject to certain US laws so even if born in the US, they as well as their children can’t be citizens based on birth in the US. While the US Supreme Court has already determined that, with the exception of foreign diplomats and their children, they ARE citizens, the debate rages. Until the Supreme Court reverses itself, birthright citizenship through simply being born within the geographic boundaries of the US is sufficient.

So, bottom line is if you were born here or to a US citizen parent, that slap on the bottom by the doctor starts your US citizenship. While you don’t have to apply for citizenship status, you do have to apply for evidence of that status. A birth certificate showing birth in the US is the essential document to get a US passport (or passport card). And that can get you a type of state driver’s license so you can board an airplane with your state-issued ID. Being born outside of the US to a US citizen parent is somewhat more complicated. In that case, the parent (or a US citizen grandparent) must have resided in the US for a period of time. If it is an adoptive US citizen parent, then certain legal and physical custody requirements, lawful admission and status requirements for the child are involved. And, of course, the adoption must have been lawful and prior to the child turning 16 years old, so you can’t adopt your distant adult cousin to make him a US citizen despite your family’s wishes. Over time, Congress changed these additional requirements several times which hasn’t helped make it any clearer or easier. And you think the tax laws are complicated?

US citizenship through application

Those who have not acquired birthright citizenship, have to generally go through first acquiring lawful US permanent residence (i.e., “green card” status) and then a period of US residence followed by applying for and obtaining US citizenship. This process is referred to as “naturalization” which does not mean that a green card holder is in some way “unnatural”. The length and cost of these processes is significant which makes the claims by some that undocumented immigrants who enter the US will be voting in the next election ludicrous. Just ask a naturalized citizen and you’ll get an earful. Nowadays, the time required to go through these processes is longer than it ever has been despite the technological advancements in government agency processing and the vast increase in agency fees and costs over the past several decades. While the fees have increased enough to allow the agencies to keep their doors open to most applicants even through increasingly frequent government shutdowns, the processing times have never been longer. Even the most privileged applicants, i.e., the spouse, minor child or parent of a US citizen, who are lawfully present in the US are looking at somewhere around seven years on average to go through the green card and naturalization processes. Minor children, including adopted children, process faster due to the lack of a requirement to have resided in the US as a green card holder for a certain period of time. The last time Congress considered legislation to permit the undocumented to obtain US green cards and then US citizenship was in 2013. The estimated timeframe was around 13 years while paying fines and meeting a variety of extra requirements. Those obtaining green cards based on other family-based relationships (the most distant one being a sibling of a US citizen) or based on skills or employer sponsorship, are waiting far longer due to category and country of birth quotas. A PhD holding scientist is probably in for a 3-5 year wait for a green card and then another 7 years to be granted citizenship. But if she was born in India, she’ll have to add on another 10-12 years.

The Civics and History Requirement

The other requirement which those born into US citizenship do not have to meet is to actually know something about the history of our country, how our government works and who is running the show, and what a show it has been of late! Indeed, the level of knowledge of our government (or even the geography of the US) is shockingly low among US citizens. This is despite requirements by, at last count, 43 states that high schools must include at least one civics course and those fewer states, including Wisconsin, which require students to pass a civics test in order to graduate high school.

My personal experience with this lack of knowledge includes when I was invited to my daughter’s 5th grade class to give a talk about US citizenship. It was fun and the kids learned enough to pass a few questions which were typical of those from the citizenship test of that day. Simple ones like what are the three branches of government or what do the flag’s colors represent. It was a public middle school attended by children from an affluent suburb of a major city. While I received a file with cute letters from the children thanking me for the presentation, I was also informed that I could not teach there again. Apparently, I had created a controversy when some of the children had administered my test to their parents who did not do well and complained to the school that it had been embarrassing for them.

Back in the day, the civics test was administered orally to those applying for citizenship and was, well, a lot easier with many applicants cramming for it the night before (unless English was a problem and there is a separate English language requirement can also be a problem). My guess is that It was still too advanced for most US birthright citizens.

This brings us to the current test which is not your mother’s civics test – by a long shot. Putting aside the potential language problem for those whose first language is not English, let’s just say that it is a lot harder.

Without Googling, answer these questions on US history:

  • Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

  • When was the Constitution written?

  • Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers

  • What did Susan B. Anthony do (other than get on the dollar coin)?

Okay, maybe something more recent:

  • Who was President during World War I?

  • Who did the US fight in World War II?

  • Name an American Indian Tribe?

Now, a few questions on government:

  • How many amendments does the Constitution have?

  • What are two of the rights in the Declaration of Independence?

  • What is the “rule of law”?

  • The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

  • Name the two Cabinet-level positions which do not include the word “Secretary”.

  • There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

  • The right to vote is one only for US citizens. What is the other responsibility for citizens?

These are a few of the sample questions provided by the government that are representative of those on the test. How did you do?

For those who will have to take the test, the good news is that there are terrific study materials available at including 100 sample questions. There are also other study materials and courses on the internet and in libraries. Many local civic and immigrant assistance organizations and schools which offer courses and assistance in preparing to take the test. Many also offer English language courses geared towards passing the naturalization English language requirement. In 2018, 91% of those who took these tests passed so don’t be discouraged but the prior practice of cramming the night before is probably unwise.