The United States has bestowed upon 3.1 million persons the new designation of “lawful” in place of “illegal aliens,” which is what they were called when they arrived in our midst. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 attempts to right our mutual difficulty by putting these immigrants in line to become permanent resident aliens or even citizens.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has announced the regulations to govern Phase II of this process, already having enrolled them on the books. By October 1994, either these persons will have taken the next step toward permanent residence, or, having failed to comply, will have been subjected to deportation proceedings. The key is preparing them to make that next step forward or backward.
The resident test partly determines the future, and the INS has published a list of 100 questions concerning American history and government, some selected number of which must be passed, in English. This test, and the regulations governing the next phase in the life of our newest prospective Americans, is a peculiar manifestation of our times. Reflecting the compromise out of which came the amnesty for those who had jumped the line to enter the U.S., these INS regulations mirror what citizenship means in the present Republic. Prerequisite to taking the test an illegal must show evidence of continuing capacity to provide for his material needs as well as submit to an AIDS test.
What this exam, and the INS’s final regulations, may teach these prospective citizens is for us to ponder. It is at least odd to offer as a reward to these people of self-evident determination qualification for the swaddling clothes of the underclass. Yet that seems to be one of the test’s chief lessons.
Of America’s history there is an amputated stump, though the myth of the cherry tree is missing. Seven heroes are identified. George Washington gets three references. Abraham Lincoln gets two, and there’s one each for Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Francis Scott Key, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a generic American Indian. Yankee history it is, too, with the Mayflower and Pilgrims the only prologue to the Revolution. The hardest question may be #82: “Name one purpose of the United Nations.” About the states only the first thirteen and the last two admitted matter, for those reasons. Facts about three wars must be known; that our first was against England, that Lincoln presided over the Civil War to. “free many slaves,” and that in World War II our allies included the Soviets. We have two holidays, the Fourth and Thanksgiving; Inauguration and federal election days are the other notable events on the calendar.
The Constitution receives a decidedly democratic reading. One question requires its identification as the “supreme law of the land,” while two other questions detail the process and extent of its amendment. There is nothing about the ideas of the Constitution beyond stating that the “most important” right is to vote (nothing is said about taxes).
In addition, one-fourth of the list is phoney. Much of the required knowledge is redundant; one question answers another, as Questions 9 and 10 illustrate: if the Fourth of July is Independence Day, what is July 4? Assuming the ACLU hasn’t banned the flag’s display in federal offices, test takers with the wit to look at the flag can see answers to the first eight questions.
Embedded in Question 84—”Whose rights are guaranteed by the Constitution?”—is a startling instance of what used to be known as an “un- American” idea. The correct answer, now, is “everyone,” citizen and alien alike. Before this recently invented doctrine, the Constitution distinguished between citizen and person, reserving to citizens certain political rights the possession of which separates us from all other people.
So why become an American citizen? The traditional answer was to exercise certain self-evident truths. The newly authorized answer (Question 86) lists only: to get a government job, travel with the blue passport, or petition to bring relatives here.
What does this test teach? Those who take it are already receiving one reward for breaking the law; compliance will bring them more. We ask them to learn some of the symbols of American life while gaining experience in it. Whatever they may have learned about the American way of life while living here, current law teaches them that they are part of a special group. With the “affirmative action state” being the antithesis of traditional ideas of American citizenship, this test implicitly leads its students further down that road.
Assimilation into our common culture seems like thin gruel to those who learn the lessons of this test. In it and in today’s nation we plant seeds for a new crop; will these new immigrants wither, hyphenate, or grow up to be like most other Americans? Whatever happens, we should see now that we fail them twice over as to the meaning of American citizenship.