Jewish World Review August 3, 2004 / 16 Menachem-Av, 5764

Jane R. Eisner

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We make citizenship too easy | (KRT) After World War I forced them to separate, it took years for my grandmother to journey, children in tow, from her native Poland across a war-torn continent to a reunion with her husband in New York.

Part of her never left the old country. The English she spoke was fractured, her writing confined to a few rudimentary words. But she was resolved to become a U.S. citizen. And she did - even if family lore has it that, when asked to name the first president, she answered: "Washington D.C."

I thought about my grandmother and millions of immigrants like her when the government announced plans last week to make testing in English language, American history and civics more rigorous for those hoping to become citizens. Since this process has varied widely from office to office and the test hasn't changed in decades, the reforms are necessary.

But they raise anew a question that this land of immigrants has long struggled with: How hard should it be to join this club?

Would my grandmother, a barely educated woman who never avoided hard work but couldn't recognize a "civics concept" if it appeared in her chicken soup, be accepted under these tough new standards?

Fortunately for us, she applied for citizenship before the last major changes. Those came in 1952, when applicants had to prove their ability to speak, read and write English and demonstrate a knowledge of American history and civics by answering questions such as Why did the Pilgrims come to America? and How many stars are there in our flag?

Given today's geopolitical reality, our notion of citizenship must go deeper. We shouldn't worry that new citizens won't match up if we expect more of them; nearly everyone does. Even though the red tape is daunting and the average processing time is 14 months, about 97 percent of aliens who seek citizenship get it.

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One reason may be that the content, administration and grading of the naturalization tests varies widely, as a 1999 survey found. A quick glance at the 100 possible questions - applicants are given 10 of the questions and have to answer six correctly - reveals how poorly they get to the heart of the matter.

Citizenship shouldn't be a matter of rote memorization. The test should probe for intent and compatibility: how much an applicant wants to be an American, and how connected he or she feels to the values and principles that make us who we are.

True, many native-born Americans can't answer these questions correctly. But - at least as far as the values and principles are concerned - in a sense, they don't need to; they imbibe this stuff from birth. New Americans, however, must be indoctrinated - not politically, heaven forbid, but as to our national character, with all its fine features and flaws.

Striking the right balance will not be easy. Loyalty and patriotism are terms frequently misused, especially in service of keeping away the unwashed and unwanted. Three years ago, I watched a man from Iraq stumble his way through a naturalization test; given the dramatic change in world affairs, I wonder if the adjudications officer now would be as forgiving.

Government officials seem to be approaching this smartly, by ensuring that the new exam emphasizes the three things every naturalized citizen should know: the founding of the country, the Civil War, and the struggle for civil rights. But much will hinge on how fairly the exam is administered and how well we help would-be citizens prepare.

Tougher standards are necessary, but they can't be an excuse for restricting entry to a club that has always benefited, and will benefit still, from those new to its ranks.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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