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The Naturalizers

Monday, July 1, 1996

          Come November, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are likely to cast their first votes in a presidential election. That's because record levels of foreigners have filed applications for citizenship with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Last year, 1.2 million of them formally sought citizenship, up from an annual average of only 230,000 in the 1980s. To handle these numbers, the INS has pumped an extra $80 million into its naturalization budget. But the waiting list continues to grow.

          This rush to citizenship offers us both opportunity and danger. We have the opportunity to help more immigrants become Americans, and thus protect our country from the dangers of Bosnia-style multiculturalism or Quebec-style separatism. The danger is that, to cope with the volume of applications, the INS will lower its naturalization standards and devalue citizenship like a worthless peso.

          Preparation for the tests and ceremony of citizenship has long been a powerful instrument of unity, an engine of assimilation that turns newcomers into U.S. citizens who understand our political traditions and are proud to be Americans. A citizenship ceremony is among the most moving events in American public life. Patriotic songs and colorful speeches about freedom and opportunity fill the program. The event concludes with a duty-bound oath in which immigrants forsake foreign political allegiances and pledge themselves wholly to their new country. As new citizens pick up their official citizenship papers, they also receive small American flags and voting information. Friends and family greet them outside. The day will be remembered the way most Americans remember graduations, weddings, and the birth of children.

          All of the difficult moments leading up to citizenship reinforce its meaning for the participants. In order to naturalize, immigrants must live in the United States for five years. They must pass an FBI criminal background check. Ultimately, they will have to be interviewed by an INS officer and demonstrate the ability to speak, read, and write in English (with some exceptions for elderly applicants) and pass a test on U.S. history and government. Only those who really want citizenship will get it. And when they do, they enjoy a satisfaction that most other Americans can never experience. "Citizenship makes me feel at home in America, like I really belong here," said Mohsen Borhani, an immigrant from Iran, shortly before he became a citizen last fall.

          This process of naturalization, and the accumulation of enough cultural capital to acquire citizenship, ultimately yields more than a set of political entitlements. It infuses new citizens with a sense of duty and loyalty to their new home. "I am no longer a Canadian and it is long past time to assume the responsibility that comes with American citizenship," said Adele Hardwick, a Canadian immigrant, right before she naturalized last November. "The right to vote is a great privilege," added the German-born Erling Hans Ulstein. "I would like to take part in the democratic process and know that I didn't just live and work here, but did my part as an American citizen," he said.

          With so many new applications for citizenship, however, the INS is threatening to lower its standards to the point where naturalization is no longer a meaningful experience. Naturalization receives little sustained attention from academics, politicians, and the media. Perhaps as a consequence, our notion of citizenship has cheapened since the turn of the century. Like a school that advances failing students to the next grade, the INS now pressures its examiners to push potential citizens through the system quickly, even if they are questionable candidates. Agents hint that their superiors are more concerned about meeting a quota than making sure everybody does a good, thorough job.

         "We have about 15 minutes for each interview," says Dan Childs, an INS officer based in Arlington, Virginia. "If I want to take a little extra time to check something, it really backs things up. We're always behind, even if things go smoothly. I usually skip my lunch hour just to catch up. You can guess what you want about the INS giving us so many appointments and so little time." What's more, the tests on U.S. history and government are hardly demanding. In the Arlington office, successful applicants need to score only seven out of 12, or 58 percent.

          The INS is now considering lowering its standards even further. The agency is reviewing proposals to water down the language requirements and exempt entire classes of immigrants from the test on U.S. history and government. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner has even suggested eliminating altogether the mandatory personal interviews in order to save time, and a battery of civil-rights organizations have egged her on. Hispanic activist Harry Pachon says that the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which he used to head, promotes naturalization because citizenship "is the missing ingredient to Latino empowerment strategies."

          For activists like Pachon, naturalization is not an important aspect of the complicated assimilation process, but a political power grab. The easier, the better. Leticia Quezada of the Los Angeles School Board wants to break down the distinction between citizens and noncitizens entirely by giving the vote to people who have not naturalized. "At one time only white males could vote," she says. "My position is that it's time we cross the line in terms of citizenship." Illegal aliens are already counted as constituents in congressional apportionment under the rules of the 1982 Voting Rights Act, even though they can't vote. California, for example, may have as many as three extra seats in Congress because of its illegal immigrant population.

          Statements and policies like these won't calm Americans' jitters about immigrants. In one recent poll, 66 percent said that the United States is no longer a melting pot. Around the globe, they see cultural differences tearing countries apart. Many Americans are beginning to wonder: If immigrants in all of their racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity fuel the "balkanization" of America, then what good are they? Naturalization is the only legal instrument that allows the United States--a "nation of immigrants"--to decide who is an American and who is not. Without it, the cohesive United States resembles the fractured United Nations.

          Americans once expected immigrants to naturalize--and to do it for the right reasons. In the early part of this century, a broad social movement set its sights on the "Americanization" of the U.S. foreign-born population. The Americanization Movement was in essence an educational drive to promote the assimilation of the millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe who swarmed to the United States on the eve of the First World War. The Americanizers, according to historian Edward George Hartmann, encouraged a barrage of "special classes, lectures, and mass meetings, where [immigrants] might be instructed in the language, the ideals, and outlook on life which had come to be accepted as the traditional American point of view." They made naturalization central to their efforts, since it would help transform foreign nationals into patriotic Americans.

          This was the vision of the Founding Fathers for their new republic. Their main concern regarding immigration was whether newcomers would rid themselves of any undemocratic principles that they might have learned in unfree lands. Would America's openness ultimately usher in people with opposing values?

         "To admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country," wrote Alexander Hamilton, "would be nothing less than to admit the Grecian horse into the citadel of our liberty and sovereignty." The solution, according to Hamilton, was to draw immigrants gradually into civil society, "to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of a philosophy at least, of their feeling a real interest in our affairs."

          The Americanization Movement drew from these principles. When President William McKinley fell in 1901 to the bullet of anarchist Leon Czolgosz--an American by birth but of obvious foreign parentage--people looked to naturalization, not restriction, as an answer to their so-called immigrant problem. After McKinley's death, the Sons of the American Revolution rushed to print a small leaflet entitled A Welcome to Immigrants and Some Good Advice. It urged immigrants to become citizens as soon as possible.

          Since 1907, more than 13 million immigrants have become citizens. According to the 1990 Census, more than half of all adult immigrants who had arrived before 1985 were citizens in 1989. Even so, few immigrants come to the United States because they want to be Americanized. The vast majority migrate to improve their economic status. Assimilation, however, starts to work on newcomers immediately as they pick up a few words of English and become familiar with American customs and mores. Any decision to naturalize comes gradually. The choice is very difficult, because it involves thorny questions of loyalty, identity, and family. Naturalization may lead to full membership in American society, but it can also seem like a betrayal of one's heritage.

          But as the years go by, immigrants form families, buy homes, and sink roots in the community. They begin to understand how citizenship can improve their quality of life. Like any characteristic of assimilation, the rate of naturalization increases over time. By the end of 1993, about 38 percent of immigrants who arrived in 1982 had naturalized, as had about 41 percent of those who came in 1977. Immigrants who naturalize typically do so after living in the United States for about 10 years. Asians and Africans tend to naturalize more quickly than other groups. Canadians and Mexicans tend to wait the longest.

          The bureaucratic inefficiencies of the INS--which has a reputation for being one of the worst-run federal agencies--stand in the way of many applicants. One study estimates that a third of all applicants abandon their quest for citizenship before any formal resolution. In some INS districts, the wait between the first application and the actual citizenship ceremony can be two years. With dozens of forms, questions, and interviews to navigate, it is easy to give up.

          For those who persevere, the formal citizenship interview is the cornerstone of the process. The one-on-one encounter with an INS officer lasts for about 15 minutes. Nobody but a lawyer may accompany the naturalization applicant. The INS examiner's first priority is to make sure that every form in the citizenship application is complete and that the FBI criminal background check has not turned up anything unsavory. His second task is to determine a candidate's English-speaking ability.

          The test on U.S. history and government is next. The exams all draw their content from a series of short books published by the INS. Their actual administration, however, can vary considerably among the INS districts, which are allowed to develop their own testing procedures. They may be conducted orally or in written form. Applicants who pass a fill-in-the blank test generally are assumed to have met the English-language reading and writing requirements. The questions are simple enough: "Who was the first president of the United States?" "Why do we have a holiday on the 4th of July?" "Who makes the laws in the United States?" They also may ask applicants to name their governor or one of their senators. Some questions have several possible answers. If a test asks "Who was Abraham Lincoln?", an INS examiner will accept any of these responses: the 16th president, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, deliverer of the Gettysburg Address, president during the Civil War, the president who freed the slaves, and so on. Some of the questions are a little tricky. If asked "Who elects the president?", most Americans will say, "the people." The correct answer, however, is the electoral college.

          Passing the exam does not require a perfect score. The INS office in Seattle, for example, uses an oral test with 16 questions--eight in history and eight in government. Four correct in each category earns a passing grade. In truth, the majority of test-takers do not squeak by--they do quite well. Most score in the 80 to 90 percent range. Scores of 100 percent are common.

          The Americanization Movement of the early 20th century viewed the classroom as an important tool, both to teach newcomers how to speak English and to instill them with the value of citizenship. Immigrant-aid organizations, community colleges, and adult education programs continue to offer citizenship training courses today, but their impact on the foreign-born population is probably not as great as it was 80 years ago. Part of the problem is that public agencies like the INS do not encourage immigrants to enroll in citizenship education. Cost is not the reason, since civics instruction is cheap. Rather, they generally have not engaged in the types of innovative partnerships with local groups that can boost interest in naturalization, streamline the INS, and ultimately Americanize people who might otherwise be left out of the system.

          One exception, however, can be found in Seattle, Washington. A program there could serve as a model for the whole country and allow a new spirit of Americanization to regain a foothold in the naturalization process.

          Students who enroll in one of the 21 citizenship classes offered by community colleges, churches, and immigrant-aid organizations in the region receive special consideration from the INS. They are screened for English fluency and pay a tuition of $60 to $120, depending on where they learn, in addition to standard INS application fees. But instead of waiting half a year for their INS interview, as is common in Seattle, students wait just 10 weeks. During this period, they attend citizenship class and prepare for the INS exam, which they take in the 10th week. The waiting list for the initiative has hundreds of immigrants on it.

          For three hours a night, four nights a week, Greg Gourley serves as an an instructor in the program. He tells his students what they will need to know in order to pass the INS naturalization exam--plus a lot more. Like test-takers everywhere, many naturalization applicants simply want to earn a passing grade. Gourley teaches to the test, but includes a lot of information that probably will not be on it. "Being a citizen is about more than just passing an exam," he says. For example, he instructs the class in the Pledge of Allegiance. By the third or fourth week, everyone has memorized it. They recite it at the start of each class, even though none will be asked anything about the pledge during their naturalization interview. "Just about every kid in the United States knows that pledge," says Gourley. "It's important for these people who are going to be citizens to know it, too."

          Students take the classes because they have some learning to do. "The Soviets didn't teach us anything about America--nothing true, anyway," says Viktor Bozhko, a Ukrainian in a citizenship course at Lake Hills Baptist Church, in Bellevue. "This is the best way for me to learn about my new home." Says the Cuban-born Ramon Negrin, one of Gourley's students at Bellevue Community College: "This is a good refresher course. It's making me proud to be an American."

          These citizenship courses deepen immigrants' understanding of U.S. history and government. They turn borderline cases into applicants who ace their exams. They also can bring new people into the system by instilling those who otherwise would hesitate to apply with the knowledge and confidence they need to pass. Receiving 20 to 30 hours of citizenship instruction over 10 weeks' time would teach something to just about anybody, from a thoroughly assimilated immigrant to a well-educated native.

          The Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't have the resources to provide this education itself. What is needed is a modern-day Americanization Movement of private and local public institutions that would revive the old-fashioned ideal of civics instruction for immigrant adults, at a time when millions of them suddenly want to naturalize.

          This mission is doubly important for immigrants, most of whom cannot fall back on childhood stories about patriot Nathan Hale's regret that he had "but one life to give" for his country, or President Lincoln's determination that government "of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth." Yet they must learn such stories, for this is the stuff of which citizens--citizens of a nation dedicated to a proposition--are made. Ben Franklin once remarked that our Constitution offers Americans "a republic--if you can keep it." Turning immigrants into citizens, into Americans who cherish both their freedoms and their responsibilities, may be the surest way to keep this republic safe through the ages.