128 Tricky Questions That Could Stand Between You and U.S. Citizenship

Take it from me, a noncitizen, there is much to learn from the naturalization test, one of the final hurdles an immigrant must clear to become a citizen.


It’s pretty tough actually, particularly the new and expanded version of the civics test that is to go into effect on Dec. 1. To those of us living under The Stephen Miller School of Exclusion, this is one more barrier to an immigrant’s quest to live here. The questions and answers are online now. I’ve been practicing in a variety of American accents.

实际上,这一测试相当困难,特别是将于12月1日生效的新的扩展版公民测试。对于我们这些生活在斯蒂芬·米勒(Stephen Miller)排外派治下的人来说,这是移民来这里定居的又一阻碍。考题和答案现在都在网上。而我一直在练习各种各样的美国口音。

The latest test has 128 civics questions about American government and history. Just getting to take the test usually means you’ve made it through an obstacle course involving reams of paperwork, thousands of dollars in lawyer and government fees, years of legal residency, a biometrics appointment and an English proficiency test. The questions come in the form of an oral test where an officer from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.C.I.S., asks the would-be citizen to answer 20 of the 128 civics questions; if she gets 12 right, she passes. After that, all she needs to do is pick up her paperwork. Then she can pledge allegiance to the flag and decide which season of “Real Housewives” to watch to truly understand this complex nation.

最新的测试里有128道关于政府和历史的问题。能有机会参加测试,都意味着你已经通过了重重关卡,包括大量文书工作、数千美元的律师费和政府费用、多年的合法居住证明、一次生物识别预约、以及英语水平测试。所有考题都是口试,一位来自美国公民及移民服务局(U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,简称USCIS)的官员会要求准公民回答128道公民测试题中的20道;如果答对12题,就算通过。那之后,她需要做的就是去拿她的文件。然后,她可以向国旗宣誓效忠,并决定看《家庭主妇》(Real Housewives)的哪一季,以真正了解这个复杂的国家。

The latest test is a jump from the current one, which requires you to study only 100 questions, and answer 10 of them, with 6 correct answers, to pass. The Trump administration has left almost no part of the immigration system untouched. It made changes large and small, from thundering bans of entire nationalities to insidious but potent administrative changes like this one. However innocuous some changes may seem, they illuminate the end goal: curbing legal immigration.


As with many Trumpian ideas, the seeds were there all along. The Naturalization Act of 1906 first decreed that citizens-to-be must speak English, and while English is not the official language of the United States, most immigrants today still have to pass an English proficiency test. The civics test is carried out only in English.


I’m a native English speaker, but I still find some questions difficult to understand. And unlike the study guide online, the questions are not multiple choice. That means that one day, if I get to take the test, I will have to try to keep a straight face as I look into another human being’s eyes and try to answer the question, “Why is the Electoral College important?”


Some people have an easier ride. If you are 65 or older and have 20 years of permanent residency under your belt, you are required to answer fewer questions. This makes me feel better about the substantial errors made by the 66-year-old senator-elect from Alabama, Tommy Tuberville. In an interview this month in The Alabama Daily News, Mr. Tuberville got the three branches of the federal government wrong and misidentified the reason the United States fought in World War II. To be fair, Mr. Tuberville played football for a long time. It is my understanding that this extremely American game involves repeated bashes to the head, one of which is bound to knock out some civics knowledge.

有些人的测试会比较轻松。如果你年龄在65岁以上,并且有20年的永久居住证明,那你需要回答的问题就很少了。这样一来,阿拉巴马州的66岁候任参议员汤米·图博维尔(Tommy Tuberville)所犯的大量错误,就让我感觉没那么糟了。在本月接受《阿拉巴马每日新闻》(The Alabama Daily News)采访时,他说错了联邦政府的三权分立,还搞错了美国参加第二次世界大战的原因。说句公道话,图博维尔毕竟打了挺久橄榄球。据我了解,这一极其美式的运动包括反复撞击头部,其中某一击必然会撞毁一些公民知识。

Speaking of senators, one of the more sinister changes to the civics test is the answer to the question, “Who does a U.S. Senator represent?” The only acceptable answer has been changed from all people of their state to citizens of their state. I’m just a person, not a citizen. Am I not worthy of representation? There was a whole kerfuffle about taxation without representation back in the day, I believe.


Simone Hanlon Shook is worried about these changes. “It’s just really punitive to people that don’t have advanced degrees and it’s not in their first language,” she told me. She said she was not worried about passing her own test when she took it on Oct. 7. It was the shorter and simpler one. Plus, she is a high school history teacher. Originally from Ireland, Ms. Hanlon Shook lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and in past years used the U.S.C.I.S. questions to quiz her high school students as she waited her turn to take the real thing. “The idea was: if you weren’t a citizen, would you pass this test? And a lot of them wouldn’t.”

西蒙·汉伦·舒克(Simone Hanlon Shook)对这些变动感到担忧。“这对没有高等学位、英语不是母语的人来说真是一种惩罚,”她告诉我。她说她并不担心自己能否通过在10月7日参加的测试。当时的测试更简短也更简单。再说,她可是高中历史老师。祖籍在爱尔兰的汉伦·舒克住在纽约州波基浦西市,过去几年,在等待自己参加真正的测试期间,她会用USCIS的考题来测验自己所教的高中生。“我的想法是:如果你不是美国公民,你能通过测试吗?他们很多人都不能。”

Her turn finally came during a pandemic, so the U.S.C.I.S. officer brought her into a room with an iPad, and then he went to the room right next to hers and conducted the interview virtually. She got 100 percent of the questions right and on Oct. 23 she was presented with her citizenship papers and a small American flag during a drive-through ceremony in a parking lot beside the Albany airport. The next day, she told me, she voted in the presidential election.


One day I hope to do the same, so I’m taking practice questions when I can. This one caught me out. “What is Alexander Hamilton famous for?” He’s famous for his cool ponytail and for being a breakout star on Broadway, right? Wrong. Apparently he’s famous for being “one of the writers of the Federalist papers.” Not sure what those are, but they sound serious.

我希望有天我也能这样做,所以我尽可能多做练习题。这一题就把我给难住了。“亚历山大·汉密尔顿(Alexander Hamilton)因何出名?”因为那酷酷的马尾辫和成为百老汇新星,对吧?错。显然,他作为“联邦党人文集的作者之一”而出名。我不确定那是什么,但听起来挺厉害的。

Another one is “Name one example of an American innovation.” Voodoo-flavored Zapp’s chips spring to mind, as does unearned confidence. However, neither is included in the list of acceptable answers. Instead: light bulbs, skyscrapers and landing on the moon.


Hernan Prieto is the citizenship program coordinator at Irish Community Services, a nonprofit in Chicago that provides immigration and social services to immigrants of any nationality in the Midwest. Part of his job is preparing immigrants for the civics test. Unlike Senator-elect Tuberville, his students usually get the question about the branches of government right. They are also familiar with some of the names on the test, he told me. They know who Martin Luther King Jr. is and why he is important. Dates trip them up, though.

赫尔南·普列托(Hernan Prieto)是爱尔兰社区服务中心(Irish Community Services)的公民身份计划协调员,这一芝加哥的非营利组织为中西部任何国籍的移民提供移民和社会服务。他的部分工作就是为移民们准备公民测试。不像候任参议员图博维尔,他的学生通常能正确回答有关政府部门的问题。他告诉我,他们对测试中的一些人名也很熟悉。他们知道小马丁·路德·金(Martin Luther King Jr.)是谁,他为什么很重要。但他们总搞错日期。

A green card holder from Argentina, Mr. Prieto hopes to apply for naturalization next year, and he told me he appreciates what he learns alongside other immigrants. Most crucially, studying civics informs would-be Americans of what they stand to gain and what they need to give if they hope to live up to this nation’s earliest motto. They learn that motto too; it’s “E Pluribus Unum” or “Out of many, one.” They learn that equality is promised by the Constitution, that nobody is above the law and that it is a civic duty to vote.


Mr. Prieto treasures that knowledge, but is not convinced that the test itself is helpful. “I don’t know that we need to have a formal test, with 128 questions that you need to learn, and get 12 of them right,” he said. “Do we really need that? What is important for a new citizen is to know their rights and their responsibilities. That is what levels them with other citizens.”


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