« Reviews of Religious Liberty (by Douglas Laycock) | Main | My Guest Stint's Most Valuable Post (MVP) »

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Errors of Law in the U.S. Citizenship Test


You know that civics test that immigrants have to pass before they can become American citizens? Well, I looked it over, and guess what? It contains errors of law. Yes, that's right, the U.S. citizenship test, designed to prevent civic ignorance, betrays significant legal misapprehensions on the part of its drafters. 

Prospective citizens are given the list of all the possible questions they might be asked, along with the answers, for use in studying. You can check them out yourself here: [pdf]. Out of the 100 questions, candidates are asked 10 at random, and must get six correct to pass. I found three bullocked question/answers. That's nearly enough to flunk a person just based on actually correct answers. That's dispiriting.

[Q.]31. If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?

[A.]▪ the Speaker of the House

That's just wrong. It is not the case that the Speaker "becomes" President.

As provided by 3 U.S.C. § 19, "the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, upon his resignation as Speaker and as Representative in Congress, act as President." (emphasis mine). The office is later referred to in that statute as "Acting President." The USCIS could fix this question by changing "becomes" to "assumes the duties of".
[Q.]51. What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?
[A.]▪ freedom of expression ▪ freedom of speech ▪ freedom of assembly ▪ freedom to petition the government ▪ freedom of worship ▪ the right to bear arms

It's accurate to say that prisoners, insane persons, and infants have freedom of worship and rights of free expression. But children and prisoners are among the many people who have no right to bear arms. This question/answer is not easily fixed. You could change "everyone" to "many people," but part of the exercise of the civics test is to celebrate America's civic virtues, and using "many people" would make the U.S. seem considerably less, um, virtuous. Nonetheless, it would be better to be accurate. Probably the better fix is to ask candidates to "Name two rights guaranteed by the Constitution." That would sidestep the eligibility question. But that brings up the second problem: There are a lot of additional correct answers – important ones – that are left out of the USCIS's list of correct responses. To take two, the right to travel and the right to procedural due process are, to my way of thinking, much more significant than the right to bear arms, and pretty much everyone would have to agree they are historically more important considering the U.S. Supreme Court's very recent recognition of the individual right to bear arms. At any rate, I don't see the harm in setting out a more inclusive list of constitutional rights – after all, people only need to remember two of them. And listing more rights serves to better showcase American civics at any rate.

[Q.]56. When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?*
[A.]▪ April 15

This is just all kinds of wrong. It would be accurate to say that April 15th is the "regular deadline," but it is not accurate to say it is "the last day." The IRS states: "By law, filing and payment deadlines that fall on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday are timely satisfied if met on the next business day." In fact, this year, because of Emancipation Day observed in D.C. on Friday, April 15, the deadline for everyone is pushed out to at least April 18th. Then, individuals residing in Massachusetts have their last day to file pushed out to the 19th because of Patriots Day, observed on April 18th this year. It turns you usually get an extra day in Massachusetts. This always seemed like an equal protection problem to me, but at any rate, it still makes the USCIS's answer wrong. Among the other exceptions, there's also extra time for people serving in the military overseas. Some of those are non-citizens who are taking advantage of a fast-track to citizenship through military service, so it's not a trivial point.

If these questions are worth asking, then it's worth the USCIS's attention to get the answers right.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on April 14, 2011 at 10:28 AM in Constitutional thoughts, Immigration | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Errors of Law in the U.S. Citizenship Test:


I remember this gem from my own citizenship test: "Which branch of the Federal Government makes laws? The Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, or the Judicial Branch"? I had to bite my tongue (hard) and say "I think the answer you're looking for is the Legislative Branch."

Posted by: David Law | Apr 14, 2011 2:48:56 PM

What about question 1:

1. What is the supreme law of the land?
▪ the Constitution

That's a nice enough answer, except that the Constitution says, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land." So the answer's not exactly wrong, but it is incomplete at best.

Posted by: Samuel D. Brunson | Apr 14, 2011 1:27:01 PM

Great post - but I can hardly permit a terrific Simpsons episode to go unmentioned, namely the one in which Apu applies for citizenship. The examiner asks him (something to the effect of) "Why was the Civil War fought?", and Apu diligently launches into a discourse about the multifaceted political and economic differences between the North and South at the time. Before he can really get started, however, the examiner stops him and says: "Just say slavery." Apu: "Slavery it is, sir."

Posted by: Mark D. White | Apr 14, 2011 12:14:58 PM

Slate had a great article with more irregularities in the test.

Posted by: PJ | Apr 14, 2011 11:25:31 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.