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Citizenship Test Revamped, in Search for Meaning

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Becoming a U.S. citizen may become a little tougher. The Federal Government is going to try out a new set of questions on the citizenship test next month. The new oral test will determine whether immigrants understand the deeper meanings of civics and U.S. history.

We sent NPR's Robert Smith out to try the questions on people in New York City.

ROBERT SMITH: I'm standing here at Battery Park on the tip of Lower Manhattan, looking out over New York Harbor, which by the way is the answer to immigration question number 129 - where is the Statue of Liberty?

That's one of the easy ones. If immigration officials have their way, then new citizens will be required to answer much more complex and nuanced questions. So I went to see how the tourists down here in Battery Park would do.

Ms. WHITNEY WICKHOUNT(ph): My name is Whitney Wickhount from Tulsa, Olakhoma.

SMITH: Why does the United States have three branches of government?

Ms. WICKHOUNT: Checks and balances.

SMITH: Somebody gave you that answer. I'll ask you another one. What is self-government?

Ms. WICKHOUNT: Try another one.

SMITH: What is the rule of law?

Ms. WICKHOUNT: Okay, Britney. I -

SMITH: Do you think these are fair questions to ask immigrants who want to become citizens?

Ms. WICKHOUNT: Yes. I think as hard as they can be, the better.

SMITH: The ferry from the Statue of Liberty and Alice Island just arrived back. Can you introduce yourself and where you're from?

Mr. DONOVAN CAINE: Yeah, my name Donovan Caine and I live here in Manhattan.

SMITH: What does freedom of religion mean? That's one of the new questions.

Mr. CAINE: It means you're free to practice any religion of your choice.

SMITH: Now, what is self-government?

Mr. CAINE: It's you - elect - I don't know, what is self-government? You control your own rules and -

SMITH: Name one example of checks and balances.

Mr. CAINE: It seems simple, but that confused me. I can't imagine an immigrant trying to sort that out.

Unidentified Man#1: Show time, ladies and gentlemen. Thirty seconds -

SMITH: There's a large crowd here on the Battery gathered around two performers and - what's the name of your group?

Mr. ZEKE ERROL: Howser Brothers.

SMITH: Howser Brothers - you guys do acrobatics and such, right?

Mr. ERROL: You got it.

SMITH: And your name?

Mr. ERROL: Zeke Errol.

SMITH: Name one thing that only the federal government can do.

Mr. ERROL: Print money.

SMITH: Absolutely. Name two ways that Americans can participate in a democracy.

Mr. ERROL: Voting and running for official office.

SMITH: You know all these stuff. Does it surprise you that most of the people I talked to here today couldn't answer some of these questions?

Mr. ERROL: No. No, it does not.

SMITH: Even though they are U.S. citizens?

Mr. ERROL: You got it. No, it does not.

SMITH: Who knows, maybe if these new questions go into effect on the citizenship test, people who are already citizens might be encouraged to do a little bit of remedial reading. You may get to see it from here at Battery Park, but of course, underneath the Statue of Liberty is an inscription. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free - and oh, yeah, it would help if you could name one example of checks and balances.

Robert Smith, NPR News in Battery Park in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.
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