You can become an American citizen by being born in the U.S., or you can become one by getting “naturalized.”
Becoming naturalized is a lot harder.
It not only means having to meet all the legal and residency requirements Congress has established, it means passing a U.S. civics test that would stump a random cable-news talk show host.
Sadly, based on the results of the civics test they take, naturalized American immigrants understand their adopted country’s history and values better than many native-born Americans.
The civics test is an oral exam by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officer. Typical questions include: “What does the U.S. Constitution do?” “Name one right or freedom of the First Amendment,” “How many representatives are in the U.S. House?” and so on.
Immigrants in the naturalization process routinely pass the test 91% of the time, demonstrating their strong understanding of our history, the functions of our government and the duties of being an American citizen.
Meanwhile, according to a recent Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation survey, only 40% of native-born Americans can pass the same test — a worrisome finding for a representative republic that requires informed and engaged voters so it may thrive.
In 2020 the Trump administration made the U.S. civics test harder. Instead of 10 questions from a list of 100 possible questions, test takers were asked 20 questions from a broadened list of 128 possible questions such as “Name one of the many things Benjamin Franklin was famous for” and “Name an American innovation.”
Critics warned that the failure rate would increase, making the legal path to citizenship harder — but it didn’t.
The immigrants’ pass rate increased to upwards of 95%. (The Biden administration has since repealed the 2020 test and reverted to the prior 10-question test.)
How can we make native-born Americans as passionate to learn and understand the basic workings of their government as newcomers?
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation believes that the traditional method of teaching American history — “memorization of dates, names and events” — is the crux of the problem.
To address the challenge, the foundation has created the American History Initiative, which will use interactive, digital tools — games, videos and graphic novels — to make American history more engaging to young and old.
Such initiatives are to be applauded, and we better hope they produce millions of well-informed young people who understand the rareness of a country founded upon the moral and political principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate every July Fourth.
We are a country of individuals who are not to be divided by our differences but who should be unified by our fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Our government was designed to protect these basic human freedoms, and our duty as citizens is to make sure our government doesn’t take our rights away.
It’s too bad so few native-born Americans are aware of this sacred duty to themselves and their children.
The passion of naturalized citizens for their new country should renew the desire of the rest of us to better understand and appreciate our many blessings and motivate us to become better Americans.
Tom Purcell is an author and humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.