Panel Transcript: Testing for Citizenship

Update on the Redesign of the Naturalization Exam

By Mark Krikorian, Gerri Ratliff, and John Fonte on July 14, 2004


Mark Krikorian, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies


Gerri Ratliff, Project Director, Naturalization Test Design, USCIS

John Fonte, Director, Center for American Common Culture, Hudson Institute

MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I’m executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. We expected eight or 10 people to show up for this, so thanks for coming and I’m glad there’s interest in this topic.

In fiscal year ’03, nearly half a million people became American citizens, and the number for this year is expected to be even higher. One of the requirements for naturalization is that immigrants demonstrate a basic familiarity with our country’s language and history and government. As our speaker may well mention, the tests of this knowledge that the Immigration Service has used in the past have never really been standardized. There’s been a certain ad hoc quality to them over the years. They vary from one examiner to the next, from one city to the next. And when there really weren’t that many people immigrating here or becoming American citizens, it was something – you could kind of afford that laxity, but with the big spike in naturalizations that began in the late 1990s, that laid-back approach really wasn’t sustainable any longer, and the immigration authorities realize that and have been looking at getting to this issue and redesigning the test. And a couple of years ago the effort began in earnest, and that’s what this event is about.

The project director of the naturalization test redesign, Gerri Ratliff, to my left, will tell us about what’s going on: what are they grappling with, what’s the progress, what’s the timetable. Then commenting briefly about some of the things that are important to keep in mind in going through this redesign is John Fonte. He’s at the Hudson Institute as director of the Center for American Common Culture, has worked with the American Legion and others in sort of having some input on how this naturalization test should be redesigned, what should the content be, that sort of thing. Each of them – Gerri will speak, John will have some brief comments after that, and then we want to open it up and get some discussion going.

So, with no future delay, Gerri.

GERRI RATLIFF: Thank you, Mark.

Like Mark said, I’m Gerri Ratliff, the project director for this test redesign, and Mark did a great job actually covering sort of the basics, and I wanted to go into a little more detail about why are we doing this, why are we doing this now, and where are we in the process?

As Mark said, right now, in every district across the country, you could go in as a naturalization applicant for your interview and have a different testing experience. Our director of our agency, Eduardo Aguirre, was naturalized many years ago – he won’t reveal how many – but he tells this great story, very illustrative story, that when he and his wife went in for their naturalization interview – they went into the same office on the day – they had different INS officers examining them in different rooms, and when they both came out and they compared stories, she had been given a much harder test than he had. And he was sort of left with an impression, you know, perhaps that’s not fair. Why isn’t the testing content a little more standardized? Maybe he would have failed if he had had the harder officer. And so, even though this project started several years ago before he was associated with our agency and leading it as a brand-new agency, he very much took up the cause and has supported this project as it’s continued to move forward.

We basically have three big things that we’re doing. When you go in for your interview you get a history test, it’s history and government; you get an English test, reading, writing, and speaking. So two parts of our project are to revise both of those sets of test content: history and government and the English test content. And then the third thing we’re looking at, which may be of less interest to you all from more of a policy perspective, is just test administration: how will the test be administered? And across each of those pieces we want to make very sure that we’re developing the test in a way that will be reliable, valid, and fair.

Mark gave you a little bit of the basics, again, in terms of the numbers of people we naturalize each year, and the handout – I won’t go over all of this, but the handout has some demographics that may be of interest. I just wanted to show you that as we develop the test we have to keep in mind that we see a lot of people every year. Not everyone who comes in to be tested passes, and so we naturalize about 600,000 a year, but even more than that comes in to be tested. So we have to come up with a system that can operate smoothly within these constraints of a lot of people coming through. We have a backlog currently – you may have heard about that – that we’re working very hard to get rid of, and so that’s something to keep in mind, that we have to be practical about what we do. We can’t have a test like the SAT that might take all day in terms of what we could handle with our facilities.

So you have some information in your handout, more details about the current testing experience. Basically, for the history side we have a set of about 100 questions that are publicly available that content-wise are focused on a little bit more facts, political trivia you might call it, than high-level concepts right now. And a big part of what we’re doing on the history/content side is trying to turn that around and say, let’s make the content more meaningful. In fact, President Bush, in January, when he announced the Temporary Worker Initiative, included some remarks in that address that talked about the importance of making the test more meaningful, focusing on the concept that really will make sure our applicants are equipped to function as new citizens.

So an example of what we’re thinking about – and we don’t have the test questions written yet because we’re still working with all the stakeholders on the content domain, but just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about – you know, what do you mean, more meaningful? One of the current questions right now talks about – the answer is a number, the 24th Amendment, for example – says, “What’s one of the constitutional amendments that focuses on voting rights?” And you need to know the number, 24 – I hope that’s right; I’m going to be embarrassed if it’s 25. (Laughter.) I think it’s the 24th. But it looks like it’s important that you know it’s the 24th Amendment.

So we think that if you turn that around and make the question, you know, the Constitution guarantees rights; what are they? Name one right. And then you would say, the right to vote, that that would be a way of exhibiting that you understand the concept as opposed to a number that doesn’t particularly equip you to function. And this is so trite but how many of us know that it’s the 24th Amendment, or even how many amendments there are? I know because I’ve been working on it, but I didn’t know two years ago. There are 27 amendments. So that’s an example of what we’re trying to do on the history side compared to what we do today.

On the English side there’s reading, writing, and speaking. So for speaking you basically today – there’s not per se a speaking test. You just have to essentially get through the interview. You have to converse with the officer and answer the questions that demonstrate your eligibility to be naturalized, and the officer will try to phrase questions in a simple way for those with less English ability, but the bottom line is you get sworn in, your discussion, your testimony is under oath, and you have to be able to establish your eligibility. So that’s today’s speaking test.

For reading and writing, in most offices – it’s not in every office because we’re not standardized today – but in most offices there are 30 sentences that, again, are publicly available that really range from kind of simple questions like “the day is sunny” to a little more complicated questions having to do with the civics side of our life, and the officer typically will say, read this sentence to me, and if you can read, you know, “the day is sunny,” then the officer will say, “okay, you can read.” And there’s not exactly a comprehension part of that in terms of saying, well, what did that mean? And it’s the same thing for writing. The officer will say, “Mark, pick up your pen and write this down: ‘the day is sunny.’” And so, if you can kind of even sound that out and get it down on paper, you’ve passed the writing test today. And again, there’s not exactly a comprehension element to that.

So we are trying to see if there’s a way to revise the English test, particularly in the reading and writing parts of it, not to make it harder – we’re very much not trying to make it harder as a goal at all, or easier, but just to make it more of a defensible test of someone’s true comprehension of those skills. And I’ll tell you a little more detail about that when I talk about a pilot we did last year of an English test.

You might want be wondering, okay, this sounds like an interesting project. Why are you doing this now? Gerri, was this your idea? And I kind of mentioned earlier that it’s been going on for several years, and that’s true. Back in the mid-‘90s we had several voices, both internally and externally, saying to us, you need to standardize the process. It’s inherently unfair that I could have a different experience than Mark just because I live in one city and he lives in another or I had an officer who had a bad day and Mark didn’t, or whatever discretionary factors can go into that. And some discretion actually is important in terms of accommodating, in an appropriate way, someone’s background in terms of someone who walks in and they have a Ph.D. . . . you might not give them the sentence, “the day is sunny” – that’s practically insulting – but if someone is a refugee who comes from a pre-literate background and had been in classes and studying for several years, they still are not going to be at that Ph.D. level. And so, when we look at the law in this project we’re looking at, hey, what does the law say – and I’ll be going over that with you as well. We don’t think it’s saying a Ph.D. level, but what is reasonable, because we want people, again, to function in society.

We were very excited this year when we heard President Bush’s remarks in January about this project, and we think that shows that across administrations there is support for this and that we’re moving in the right direction.

There are some slides in your handout that I won’t go over one by one, but starting at the bottom of page three, that talk about the history of our statute – (background noise) – I’m going to keep talking.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yes, go ahead, please.

MS. RATLIFF: Because people say, the current statute, where did that come from; how long have applicants had to write and read and show history? And when this country first began, and then obviously began naturalizing citizens, there wasn’t requirements in the same form as there are today in those areas. It really evolved over time and it actually wasn’t until 1950 – so actually pretty recently – that the current requirements in their form as we see today came into being.

In fact, back in the late 1890s, Congress added the first basic literacy requirement, but even then it wasn’t limited to English. You just had to show you were literate in a language. So, again, it sort of just shows you how our current understanding of what’s required of new citizens has evolved over time.

I always mention when I talk about what we’re doing that we are coordinating with a very important office in CIS, meaning Citizenship and Immigration Services, CIS, and that’s a new office called the Office of Citizenship. It was created when our CIS, Citizenship and Immigration Services, was created, and its function dovetailed so perfectly with our project that we basically support each other as we move forward. Their mandate is to develop and disseminate educational materials about citizenship responsibilities. They also have a lot of initiatives to highlight the importance of citizenship.

So this project is on the operations side. It’s working on its governmental function of determining applicant eligibility for citizenship, but we are very much hand-in-glove with that important office in terms of outreach and just fleshing out what citizenship means.

So now I would like to just focus in a little more detail – assuming that you’re interested – on each of the parts of what we’re doing.

On page five in your handout, in the middle, there is basically a slide that just says what our statute requires for history and government, and everything that we’re doing relates back to the words of the statute. What do new citizens need to know? Basically, the fundamentals of the history and principles and form of government of the United States.

So, what does that mean? When you’re trying to come up with a new history test, how do you flesh that out? What I think personally are the fundamentals might be different from what you think or what you think about the fundamentals, so what is a rational way to flesh that out? What we’re doing is we’re looking at four different perspectives and we’re basically saying, if something is fundamental it’s probably something that pops up over and over again. If it doesn’t, that’s probably an indication it’s not fundamental. So if we have four different sources, a topic should appear in at least three of those. It’s just what we are sort of working with, working definition, to be fundamental.

And what happens when you do that? What are those four sources? The first one is we’re looking at national and state K-12 content. That’s just kind of an obvious source of, you know, what do the states teach about U.S. history and government. What, on a national level, has been laid out to be taught? And when you look at enough of that and you see that basically all the states teach just about the same thing. There’s a little bit of aberration that’s kind of giving a local flavor to a state’s history, but other than that there’s not a lot of disagreement there.

Now, again, our naturalization applicants, they’re not able to sit in a classroom for 12 years, but this is just to give us an idea of the high-level topics that are covered in that type of a curriculum. We’ve also looked, of course, at the current test in the official textbooks. Those textbooks were written in the 1980s. You may or may not have heard of them because they’re not very readily available anymore; they haven’t been updated since then. They are on our website but they’re not even all of them available in print anymore, but we did look at them because that’s a clue in terms of what is fundamental is currently operationalized. So we’ve looked at that.

We’ve also gotten a lot of stakeholder input, and that is not over. That won’t be over for many, many months, and that’s part of a reason why I’m so excited to be here today, because whenever I meet new faces who are stakeholders, I want to hear from them, and obviously that can’t all just happen this morning, but my email address and phone number, those are the last slides, so that we can be talking together about what is fundamental so that your input is included as well.

We’ve done surveys; we had a conference last January. Actually, any of you who want to stay in touch with us as this develops over the next few years, if you give your business card to Amy, the woman in the red sweater with her hand up, she will let you know about future things that we do, including our conference next year.

From that stakeholder input, so far the three biggest things that everyone mentions – I mean, everyone has different things they like – am I talking too long?

MR. KRIKORIAN: No, no, please go ahead.

MS. RATLIFF: Everyone has different ideas, but the three things that basically everyone mentions are – the three things are the founding of the country, the Civil War, and civil rights. So I have always found it very interesting that it kind of goes from the beginning of our history, kind of the middle, more recent – of course, civil rights goes throughout but it’s a topic that continues today. And then other people vote for other things but those three everyone votes for.

A big part of how we will be getting stakeholder input that is yet to come is we’re going to publish a proposed content domain in the form of a study guide in the Federal Register, and we’re actually putting that together now, sort of just doing the best we can based on the feedback we have so far. And that will be a way that we can officially, as a government agency, say we want to hear from everyone. And then we’ll have a 60-day public comment period where anyone who’s interested – and we think a lot of people will care about this – we think a lot of people have opinions about what new citizens should know. We’ll be able to get that type of widespread input on – you know, in your domain you missed something important, you said too much about something else. You know, whatever people want to say, we want to hear that.

And then the fourth perspective we’ve talked about – so we’ve got the K-12 content, the current test in textbooks, the stakeholder input, and then we gathered up a group of . . . we call it a history panel but it’s really more diverse than that. It’s a group of experts who deal with history for a living. It’s history professors, high school history teachers, political scientists, civics experts, and included some adult educators on that panel, and said to them, okay, if you were king or queen, what would you say is fundamental? And we’ve taken that as one of the four sources to consider as well. And the adult educators on that panel, their role – I mean, they’ve kept saying, “we don’t know about history, we don’t know about history,” but they were people who could say – like one of the adult educators teaches civics to the Hmong population in St. Paul. So she’s someone who – you know, real-time experience in the trenches who could say, you know what, is there an easier word? The Hmong – I could never translate that in class? Or is there a different way to illustrate that concept? So she was sort of the voice of reality for the applicants who will most need assistance in being successful with this new content. And that has been a fascinating experience.

So that’s kind of the history story. It’s still a work in process. After we get the comments back from the Federal Register period we will develop – get a final content domain, final study guide, final test question, and then we will pilot them next year to see, how do they work? Are these questions fair? Are there some that didn’t work very well when they actually are in the field? How do folks do with them? So that’s basically the history story.

On the English side we’re a little bit farther along. On your handout on page six we have the language of the statute, and this, again, is what we map to. This is our target. We’re not trying to do anything any more or less because the statute is really our driving principle that Congress has said, “this is what you’ve got to do; this is what you have to demonstrate as a new citizen.” But it’s not crystal clear what this means. The law basically says – and I’m just picking out parts of it, but what does it boil down to? You’ve got to understand English, including reading, writing, and speaking words in ordinary usage. What is that? That means a lot of different things to different people. And then for reading or writing it says “simple words and phrases.” The requirement is met if you can read or write simple words and phrases.

So we have struggled with, what does that mean? How do you take that and turn it into a test? And again, we’ve kind of done the same type of process we did on the history side. We asked for stakeholder input from educators, from our own officers, from community groups who work with immigrants, from anyone we talk to who is interested in this side of the project to say, what do you think this means? And basically everyone says – basically everyone says, you know, focus on the practical. You’ve got to function in society. So we’ve been trying to turn that into a test.

And since I’m running out of time, there are slides here, and I’m happy to talk to anyone in more detail about what we’ve done on that side. We did a pilot last year with proposed formats. This summer and fall we’re going to do some additional studies to look at other formats to see if they’re more accessible for our population. Then English and history together will be piloted next year, sort of applicants getting the whole new test together for the first time to see what feedback and data we get on that.

So I’m going to skip over the pilot findings – all the data is here in the slides – and just kind of jump to our timetable.

We are working on a pretty slow timetable. We think that’s appropriate, kind of given the stakes of what we’re doing, and we want to make sure we move forward at each step with data that backs us up so we don’t implement something that our officers can’t handle, that we don’t have the infrastructure to handle, that our applicants didn’t have time to be prepared for, didn’t know about. So we think it’s good to move slowly and with a lot of input.

So the steps that we have coming up – and this is at the end of the handout at the bottom of page 11 – I’ve mentioned the next big thing as getting the draft study guide in the Federal Register. Again, any of you who give Amy or me your business cards, or write it down, your email address, we can let you know what that gets posted. We’re going to be doing, this fall, some additional studies, like I mentioned, of format, also of test administration, how should the test be administered; some tests to sort of gauge how much prep time will applicants with little education need so that classrooms can get ready; the applicants who have to be in a citizenship prep class or an English class to prepare themselves, what’s a fair lead-in time for them?

And another big thing we’re doing is working with the National Academies of Science. They are a group that different groups – Congress asked them to do special studies. They’re a group of – they bring together experts who volunteer their time to give advice to the government. It’s basically why the Academies were created, and they’ve created a committee to give us advice about our test development. Now, that doesn’t mean – almost done – that doesn’t mean they’re going to say, wait a minute; in this history study guide, why’d you mention World War I? They’re not going to micromanage the content decisions. They’re focused on process, the development. So their job is basically to say to us, what process did you follow, and if you followed a rational process, then it will result in appropriate content decisions. So they’re the big-picture development people.

And that started in April – they had their first meeting in April, and it’s a fascinating group of folks, and they’re meeting with us again in August to, again, just getting them up to speed on what we’ve been doing and giving them the technical information and data that they’re asking for so they can evaluate us. And at the end of the day, in January of ’06, they will be issuing a public report on whether our development process – whether our new test will be reliable, valid and fair. And if they find that it’s not they’ll have recommendations on basically corrections that we’ll need to make. But we think, again, given the stakes of what we’re doing and the interest in what we’re doing, it’s very appropriate to have some – it’s like an outside audit saying, did you do a good job of what you’re doing?

And on November 11th, which I know is Veterans’ Day – this is their schedule – they’re having a stakeholder input meeting where they will invite all interested parties to come to the meeting and present views on what you all think is important and what they should be considering. And we could also keep you up to date on that, again through Amy’s email list. But we’re very excited to be working with them as an outside team of experts who can let us know if what we’re doing is reliable, valid and fair. We believe it will be. That’s our goal. It’ll be nice to have that credible outside voice saying that.

So just to sum up, you know, we’re doing all of this. When is it going to be over? I said we’re not moving quickly. Our pilot will be next year, and that’s when we’ll be able to say, okay, we’ve tried out this test on eight (thousand) to 10,000 real NAPS (ph) applicants. Let’s see how it worked; let’s tinker with it in terms of lessons learned from the pilot if need be. And then we want to start implementing – our timeline right now says late 2006. We have to refine that as we get more information on the impact of this new test in terms of on citizenship preparation classes, getting their students having a fair amount of time to study new content. But that’s our target for right now.

And, again, the last slide is my name and contact information so that even beyond today, those of you who are interested, we can remain in touch.

Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thanks, Gerri.

Now John Fonte will offer some brief comments, as one of the stakeholders that Gerri’s consulted, among others before him, on some of the things that are probably important to keep in mind, and he has some – he has a handout back there somewhere with a letter that he’ll refer to, and then we’ll go to Q&A.


JOHN FONTES: Okay, the handout is a letter on American Legion stationary. It’s from the Citizenship Roundtable, which is an alliance of the Hudson Institute and the American Legion to Tom Ridge, outlining some of our ideas on what should be on this test.

First I want to commend the efforts of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on their very serious interest in this project, particularly the new leadership of Eduardo Aguirre and Michael Petrucelli and Alfonso Aguilar, who’ve shown a tremendous interest in promoting civic responsibility and civic instruction, and I have to say it’s a big improvement from the previous Zeigler, Stuart Anderson administration. This group is very much interested in civic integration.

And I particularly want to commend Gerri, who’s been working six years, maybe seven years overall on the project, and she’s met a lot of people, and she’s met cranky people and had to deal with people like me, and has done a very good job of trying to get the broadest possible support for this project, so she’s done a great job.

Our issue is this, just very basic: what is the purpose of the test? Why are we having this test? Is it to learn facts? Well, it’s basically in the law, the INA of 1952 as amended, and in the law there are three things that we think are important. One is, as you’ve heard from Gerri, how people have to know the English language at an ordinary language level, and then they have to know something about – here it says “a knowledge and understanding of the history and principles and form of government of the United States.” But also in the INA is this statement: “The applicant for citizenship is supposed to have good moral character, attachment to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and to be disposed toward the good order and happiness of the United States.”

In other words, the purpose of the test is both cognitive – what you’re supposed to know, history and government and so on so that you can participate in our democracy – but also, maybe even more importantly, normative. That is, you can’t simply know the process but have to be attached and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States. So we can presume that Mohammed Atta, for example, was an intelligent man. If he had taken the citizenship test he might have understood the Constitution, but he wouldn’t have been – that’s the hijacker in case you’ve . . . some of us have forgotten September 11th, the leader of it, but that doesn’t mean he was disposed toward the good order of the United States.

So, with this in mind there are three principles then: the content, the English test, the history knowledge, and this normative aspect, which is crucial. With that in mind we have to think that this test is not exactly the same as a curriculum test that you would take in the state of Maryland or the state of Virginia. I happen to have been involved in the national history standards argument back in the mid-‘90s, a very bitter argument about the national history standards and what this meant, and that of course was an argument – that was a test or that was a set of curriculum designed for American-born students. This is different. This has a more – this is for immigrants hoping to become American citizens, so it has a much more normative aspect than a regular test. That’s why it’s fine to be talking to historians, and we’ve done a good job of this in getting a wide array of input, but in the end it’s not a consensus of historians or educators; it’s a consensus of the American people, which will be probably a more celebratory version than usually exists in K-12 courses. So we’re not looking for an academic consensus, at least in our view. And I don’t think it’s what the law – the Immigration Nationality Act of 1952 – says.

So immigrants who become American citizens, of course, at the end of this process they take an oath of allegiance, of loyalty to the United States. So concepts such as loyalty and patriotism should be at the center of this test, and in some cases people are uneasy with that, but that is, I think, what most of the American people want, and that is clearly what is the spirit of the law. The oath of allegiance that the immigrants take is central to the kind of constitutional democracy we are. Of course, we’re governed by consent of the people, we the people, and in taking this oath, the immigrant is joining the American people, leaving a previous people – the Salvadorian people, the Chinese people, the Nigerian people, the Mexican people – and joining the American people.

If the slogan “a nation of immigrants” means anything, that’s what it means: you have left a previous people and joined the American people. So this oath is at the heart, and therefore we believe that in today’s post-9/11 and globalizing world of increasing transnational ties and continuous high immigration, it’s very important that we get citizenship and naturalization right, so it’s vital that the meaning of the oath of renunciation and allegiance is on the test and it’s made clear to all of our new folks.

So what we could do with this is certainly as they apply for citizenship they should get a guide and this should be all made clear to them: this is going to be on the test. It should be clearly explained to new citizens by the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, that the oath means that they have a moral obligation to give up all political allegiance, loyalty and citizenship from their birth nations and from non-state foreign powers, and upon taking the oath their sole political allegiance is to the United States.

So the naturalization process is really sort of a rite of passage. It’s much like a marriage ceremony or a communion or a confirmation or a bar mitzvah, or a bat mitzvah or a wedding ceremony. It’s a type of ceremony that should engage applicants, both their reason and their sentiment. As James Madison declared in Federalist 49, “Our democratic republic requires both enlightened reason and a certain degree of veneration in order to endure,” and that’s certainly true with the naturalization process.

So from a serious orientation program – and I think the new people at the USCIS are very interested in this – for a serious program on the applicant first – I’m sorry – the applicant for citizenship first applies, studies, passes the history and government, language test, to the final ceremony, the citizenship naturalization experience should be meaningful, dignified and inspiring. It should, in short, foster patriotism. So the “P” word should be right up front with no blinking about it.

So for new Americans the naturalization process should be a major life-altering experience. What about the test itself? I’ve seen a list of 12 topics and pretty soon I’ll be seeing the guide itself, I guess, as one of the stakeholders, but I think it looks pretty good. The 12 guides, there is a discussion of the founding principles, a discussion of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Federalists, certainly obviously the Civil War and the civil rights movement. It says something about the role of business enterprise. Something should be tossed in about immigration and why immigration has been successful, because we’ve had a policy of Americanization, of patriotic assimilation, of patriotic integration. You know, you can learn English and you can make money, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that – like people recently in Buffalo, New York – but that doesn’t mean you’re loyal to the United States.

So in the end, the most important type of assimilation or integration is patriotic integration. The role of religion in American life? Sure, it would be important. America is very different from other countries. And we also think one field that’s been neglected in K-12 education but certainly should be clear to immigrants, and that is the role of American heroes – and that would include people like the fathers, but it would certainly also include military heroes, which has not been given as much play lately in American history. I mean, people should know about Yorktown and Gettysburg and D-Day, about the sacrifices of American soldiers. And military heroes I think of as leading classical historian -- classicist and historian Victor Davis Hanson, has written very tellingly that, “Without Grant and Sherman, there would be no Frederick Douglas and the abolitionists.” In other words, without Grant and Sherman actually winning the Civil War, slavery would not have been abolished. Without Eisenhower and Patton defeating Rommel and von Rundsedt at D-Day in the Ardennes and on the Rhine, there would be no Brown v. Board of Education, there would be no Civil Rights Act, there would be no women’s movement if Eisenhower and Patton and MacArthur had not defeated the Germans and Japanese in World War II. So that should be central.

I have two minutes, but I don’t need two minutes.

So this has basically been our tradition, and the test is, I think, at the 3rd or 4th grade level. So we could say, the heroes who led our national during the American Revolution are called the founding fathers, or the founders. George Washington was our first president and led the army in the American Revolution. Alexander Hamilton was our first secretary of the Treasury. These are some of the questions.

But let me end up by saying that our tradition has been patriotic integration, that immigrants from all over the world, from any nationality, can become American, but the key is they become an American. This is what Washington said in a letter to Adams – a very famous letter to Adams – “We welcome immigrants but we want them to assimilate to us.” And this is obviously what the great leaders at the beginning of the 21st century, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, leaders of two political parties said when they promoted Americanization at the turn of the century. So that should be the spirit of this test and the spirit of this process.

Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, John.

I’ll take the moderator’s prerogative to ask the first couple of questions even though I know you’re all champing at the bit. Just a couple of basic things. First of all, do you have any timeline, Gerri, for when the Federal Register, that study guide thing, is supposed to come out, even roughly?

MS. RATLIFF: Sure. I have my timeline, and it requires other people to abide by it to achieve it, but I’d like to see it published September, October, November. (Laughter.) I’m looking at my – no, for the Federal Register – Amy – we’ve been going over the project plans this last week. I’d like to see it published this fall. Maybe that’s a fair thing to say. To get it into the Federal Register requires certain steps between me and it for briefings and sign-offs, but that’s my goal is, essentially, soon.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Okay. The bigger question is, have you all had any congressional input, interest and – I mean, obviously you guys are the bureaucrats so the politics isn’t what you’re getting involved in, but what thought have you given to how to keep this, if possible, from being another front in the culture war, in some sense almost inevitably, but, I mean, it’s something you all have to give some thought to.

MS. RATLIFF: Sure. We have – in terms of the first part of your question, we have briefed the Hill, the House and Senate Immigration subcommittees, briefed in person and provided information, like these type of power points, along the way and asking for their feedback as well. Even like two years ago in the early stakeholder surveys, Hill staffers from the Immigration subcommittees were a part of that. We’ve sent information to other congressional groups, caucuses that seem to be stakeholders.

I think at this point in the early development the Hill is interested and is giving some feedback, but I – (audio break, tape change) – to want to be stakeholder like everyone else, but they’re certainly not extremely active.

And in terms of the culture wars, I would just say that we’re – with all of this – it’s not just the history content but with all of it we’re trying to hear from everyone and then kind of hear a consensus, like John was saying – you know, is there a way to sort of walk that ground? I mean, in working on this history content, I would get different, conflicting comments and think, how am I going to reconcile this and make everyone happy? But when you really got into talking – like, what was your concern, what was your concern; would these words make you happy – I generally could find ways to present issues that everyone was okay with – generally. So I think just with a lot of work we can do it.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Okay. Well, when you finish this you’ve got – there are other people who will want your services. (Laughter.)

I’ll take the questions. Please speak up and say where you’re from, and no speeches or anything, please, just questions.


Q: My name is Karina Rollins from the American Enterprise magazine, and this is for Gerri Ratliff. And as an American I want to thank you for your efforts. I think what you’re doing is amazing. This is my one concern, and Mr. Fonte hinted at it and the culture war question hinted at it, and that is the process that you described of how the fundamentals are determined. You know, it’s through the consensus of the K-12 books, the surveys, all of that. What worries me about that is that it’s all subjective. Right now we’re still fine. Most people still think that the important things are important – the founding fathers, the Civil War, the civil rights, and I’m sure a few other things. But – and this is about the culture wars – where we’re headed, 50 years from now that will not necessarily be the case. We’ve all heard the stories about high school and even college students knowing more about one specific obscure feminist who lived in 1910 rather than the major battles of the Civil War or the major battles of the revolution or the founding principles of our country.

So I would – how could you maybe impose – it seems like you’re very reluctant to impose anything. I would actually like to see some objective truth imposed, because 100 years from now, even if 80 percent of the people say what’s important is, you know, the plight of transsexual slaves, we’re still going to know, no, what’s important is George Washington and Lincoln. And how can you address the subjectivity of –

MS. RATLIFF: Well, I really think that as we look at our four sources that does wash out. I mean, the current test is pretty much focused on the traditional facts, and that is one of our four sources. The academic panel was comprised of a very diverse group, both sort of occupation-wise and philosophical view-wise, and they – you know, if there was someone who was pushing for something that was obscure to other people, they kind of cancelled each other out. I mean, the American people – I mean, if, in 100 years, which I won’t be here to try to sort it out, but if most of the American people want to talk about some obscure issue, then I don’t know why it would be wrong to add it to the test. That doesn’t mean George Washington would fall off, because it’s still – but I don’t know. Do you know how to guard against that?

Q: Yes. I would take a harsher approach and simply impose some rules. For example, I also disagree with you – I think that adding some obscure fact would come at the expense of dropping something else because there’s only so much you can have.


Q: Otherwise maybe 500 years from now we’ll end up with five-day-long tests. You can’t do that.

MS. RATLIFF: Right. Well –

Q: And as some of our schoolbooks have shown, the important stuff has already been dropped in favor of obscure stuff.

MS. RATLIFF: Sure. Sure.

Q: So I think that is a big concern.


Q: Gerri, can I interject here just for a second?


CHRIS BENTLEY: I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself. I’m Chris Bentley with the Office of Public Affairs for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. I would simply say that we’re at the starting process and we haven’t even published the study guide in the Federal Register to ask for public comment yet, so that addressing the specifics is almost out of order right now. We need to work through the process so that we can get all the input from the public that will come forward by people who are interested in this process. But to discuss it now is almost belaboring the point because we’re not ready for that yet.

So, as the study guide publishes in the Federal Register, please encourage anyone who sees that to submit their comments. Let us know what your concerns are. Let us know what they would like to see there. Allow us to work on reaching consensus so that we can make a test that is very meaningful that attaches or shows attachment to the principles that make our country so great. But we’re not ready to make that discussion yet because we don’t have all the information on the table to be able to talk intelligently about those choices.

MR. KRIKORIAN: John had a quick response and then we’ll take your questions.

MR. FONTE: Well, just a point. In Korea there’s nothing to prevent Chris DeMuth from sending a letter to the USCIS explaining his views. (Chuckles.)

MR. KRIKORIAN: And that’s my point about how this ultimately – Gerri, with your best effort, it is a political issue inevitably and so it’s something that – I mean, you have to have thought about this since – that was sort of the nature of my question.

MS. RATLIFF: Sure. Right, we’re very aware – sure.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Sir, and then you. Sir?

Q: (Off mike) – from Reuters. I took the test in 1996. I had to write one sentence, “The sun is out,” which shows there is a pro-gay agenda. (Laughter.) I have two questions. First of all –

MR. KRIKORIAN: If you could speak up – if you could speak up.

Q: -- I actually want to say that there were testers who were haranguing elderly Korean or Asian gentlemen in a very abusive and intolerant and rude way, and I found that very distressing. So it’s not just the test; it’s also the attitude of the testers.

My question to you is, what happens if people repeatedly fail this test? Are they going to be denied citizenship?

I also have another question for Mr. Fonte, and that is that I retained my British citizenship, I have dual citizenship, and I retained my loyalty and affection for the country that I was brought up in. The way you phrase it, the logical outgrowth of that would be to abolish dual citizenship. I, for instance, still – my mother sat through the Blitz for two years before the –

(Cross talk.)

MR. FONTE: I’d love to answer your question. I’ll answer it in a second.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, Gerri will answer your first question then John will address it very briefly because it’s not about dual citizenship.

MS. RATLIFF: Okay, and I’ll be brief too. The points are very well taken. Training – officer training will be a huge part of what we’ll do in the new implementation, and customer service is a big part of what the new Citizenship and Immigration Services is trying to do. We know there have been issues and continue to be. That is something we’re trying to work on.

And if you repeatedly fail, on the one hand I would, well, if you can’t demonstrate that you’re meeting the statutory requirements, you have to fail. We can’t naturalize you if you’re not showing that you know the fundamentals of history and government. On the other hand, we are hoping to collect resources – we can point folks to prep classes. We hope our study guide will be very accessible and people can go back and study again. You can take the test twice with one fee. You can take the test repeatedly; you just have to pay your fee every two times. So, I mean, our goal –

Q: Indefinitely?

MS. RATLIFF: Sure. Yeah, there’s no cutoff. There’s no, like, you have to wait three years. You have to wait your turn again, but – but our goal really is to make the study guide and supportive materials accessible for the folks who really, really, really want to can learn it.

MR. KRIKORIAN: And brief comment from John.

MR. FONTE: Okay, I’ll try to make it very brief, because I’ve written on this extensively and the gentleman can get my long writings on the topic. But since 1795 – so this actually goes way back; the Oath of Allegiance goes back more than 200 years. Since 1795, immigrants to the United States, in American law by Congress, have had to take an oath of allegiance renouncing all allegiance to prior governments. So that’s the spirit. It’s true that some people have dual citizenship. There are a variety of exceptions here, but that is the spirit – just as in a marriage ceremony people promise faithfulness to the wife and husband and everyone doesn’t always follow it. But that is the spirit, that is the purpose of the law, and that’s what should be emphasized until we change the law. And we did fight a war about this in 1812, in fact with the British. The British insisted that once an Englishman, always and Englishman, and we said no; we believe in voluntary citizenship. We believe that people can be changed – they can change from English citizenship into American citizenship – a good part of the War of 1812. But we can continue this at some other time.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, please feel free to harangue him afterwards. Any other questions?

Yes, sir?

Q: I’m John Davis with U.S. ENGLISH. You had said that if they keep on failing they just have to wait their turn again at taking the test again. How long of a wait is that, do you know, on average?

MS. RATLIFF: Well, our backlog, the queue, is different in different cities. Our goal is that it would be no more than six months, and we’re hoping to get to that goal within the next –

MR. BENTLEY: So by the end of 2006.


Q: But realistically, what – 10 months, a year, two years?

MR. BENTLEY: Current processing times are about 14 months nationwide.

Q: Okay.

MS. RATLIFF: It really varies by city but –

MR. BENTLEY: I think the average is 14 months.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: I actually had a question if no one else is champing at the bit to ask. I actually went to a conference several years ago where a conference organizer asked participants ahead of time to come up with – look at the hundred questions, which aren’t statutory or anything but it’s what people use, the hundred questions for – you know, how many stars on the flag, who was the first president, that sort of thing – and what other questions would you add? And so some people had, you know, a few – they made a stab at it. I actually submitted like four pages of questions, and the point of it was that there are other things that might need to be tested to determine this kind of familiarity beyond political history and the political plumbing – you know, the three branches of government and what have you – like cultural and geographic questions: name a river in the United States, any river. I mean, it doesn’t even matter, but just come up with a river in the United States. Name a single American musical figure, anybody.

I mean, if you can’t do that stuff, it would seem to me that that would be an indication that you just haven’t been paying attention for the five years or more that you’ve lived here in the United States. Has there been any kind of – have you guys given any thought to that kind of thing?

MS. RATLIFF: So far we have not. So far we have not, and we’ve heard that from stakeholders, and I would say my first reaction is we are very much trying to stick to the law, and I guess I would – I think we would have to think through, would we need a statutory change to fit that, or does that fit with the current wording of fundamentals of history and government?

(Cross talk.)

MR. FONTE: Well, it has something to do with, certainly, the good order and happiness of the United States in general.


Anyone else? Yes, sir.

Q: Ben Piper (ph), ProEnglish. Gerri, you mentioned the three sections of the exam, the history, government and English proficiency. Are all those weighted equally, and if so, would you consider weighting, for example, the English proficiency testing requirements more heavily than the knowledge of history and government given that English seems – arguably is a key that opens up the full opportunities of American life for all new Americans?

MR. KRIKORIAN: Let me just repeat for the transcript purposes. The question is, should the history, English and civics parts all be – are they weighted equally and should they be weighted equally? Gerri?

MS. RATLIFF: Currently, and so far in our planning, they are essentially weighted the same. I would even say they are not really weighted; they are separate tests and you have to pass both currently. If you make 100 percent on your history test but can’t write your one sentence, you can’t be naturalized, and that is the way that we’re planning for the future, that you’ve got to check all the boxes, because, again, the way that statute is written you have to satisfy each criteria.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Anyone else? Okay, well, I appreciate your coming. Let me just point out that the Center for Immigration Studies, CIS, which was CIS long before the DHS decided to reorganize itself, is online at, all of our publications. We’ve actually published some stuff on the dual citizenship issue and we’ll be publishing some more on citizenship-related issues. All of it’s online.

Gerri’s agency, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, is online at, and the Hudson Institute is online at, and John’s writings are there as well.

So I appreciate your coming, and feel fee to harass these speakers up here after the event is over.

Yes, Chris – quickly.

MR. BENTLEY: Let me provide my phone number real quick. If you have questions for Gerri – there’s about 30 people in the room – please give me a phone call at Public Affairs first. Gerri won’t have time to answer all your phone calls. I’ll be happy to help you with your stories, answer any questions, anything I can’t answer I’ll get back with Gerri. But my phone number in the Public Affairs office is (202) 616-7338, and it’s Chris Bentley.

Thank you.

MR. KRIKORIAN: Thank you, Chris, and thanks to everybody here. Thanks for coming.

MS. RATLIFF: Thank you.