A colleague of mine from Sierra Leone has been working for years to get his parents into the United States. His elderly parents have recently survived a bloody civil war, an escape on the Atlantic in a small boat, a daring helicopter flight to the airport in the capital of Freetown, and a bare existence in Ghana under the care of a nurse. But their next test, one to be eventually administered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, may prove the most absurd hurdle of all.
Political refugees, as well as those seeking to join relatives or find greater financial or educational opportunity in the United States, must pass a test the INS employs to determine fitness for citizenship. The test draws from 100 questions. In addition to establishing the prospective citizen can read and write in English (a requirement added in 1952), the questions for those seeking naturalization include: Who wrote the national anthem? What do the stripes on the flag mean? What Immigration and Naturalization Service form is used to apply to become a naturalized citizen? Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States (which can be answered correctly, according to the INS, by declaring that you can obtain federal government jobs).
Success rates on the exam vary around the country. In any case, it's unlikely a majority of current citizens under the age of 40 would be able to answer all the questions.
Fortunately, the INS is planning to overhaul the process. One can only imagine what new questions the agency will devise: Identify the Nike logo. Name the founder of Microsoft Corp. Read a mutual fund report.
If the United States intends to discourage immigration, especially from the needier countries south of the equator, surely there are less devious methods _ bank statements, say. But instead let's hope the INS learns, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor." Thoreau wrote, in his essay Civil Disobedience, that treatment of the individual was at the heart of "a really free and enlightened State." How the United States treats those seeking naturalization is at the very center of our national character.
Any worthwhile test for citizenship should include questions about the very precious freedoms that our Bill of Rights and Constitution describe. These hopeful immigrants should be given a test that reflects the real nature of their quest _ a future in a land where freedom of speech and press are guaranteed in the law and where checks and balances are designed to ensure a more stable and representative government. The current INS test suggests that would-be citizens are trying out for membership in a perverse club that asks for a secret password and handshake.
Maybe the quiz we should give to the INS is this: What words did poet Emma Lazarus write in 1903? The answer is, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
Kathleen Ochshorn is an associate professor of English at the University of Tampa.