The Immigration & Naturalization Service is asking for public advice on how to reform the test given to applicants for citizenship. Currently, permanent legal residents of the U.S. who wish to become citizens must answer a few items drawn from a published list of 100 questions and their answers. [You can read them at http://shusterman.com/100.html For Peter Brimelow's experience, see /insight_debate.htm].
The questions inquire about nice-to-know Americana and basic Constitutional facts. For example:
Q: What are the colors of our flag?
Q: What are the three branches of the U.S. government?
Mixed in with these simple-minded but patriotic queries is a more ominous one that reflects the modern immigration-as-a-civil-right mindset:
Q: Name one benefit of being a citizen of the United States.
(A: Obtain federal government jobs; travel with a U.S. passport; petition for close relatives to come to the U.S. to live.)
Charles Bahmueller of the Center for Civic Education is proposing we augment the current emphasis on rote memorization. He wants to use the test to encourage applicants to gain a better understanding of the underlying principles of the Constitution. He'd add questions like "And why are there separate branches?" This would make clearer the fundamental goals of the Constitution, such as preventing despotism.
No doubt a fine improvement. But more far-reaching reforms based on a realistic understanding of human nature are needed.
First, the current citizenship test reflects a schoolmarm's bias toward book-learning rather than what really motivates love of country. Neoconservative intellectuals constantly tell us that America is not a nation based on blood, but on ideological "propositions." Yet, these American "propositions" are far less exceptional today than when Abraham Lincoln defined America as "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." Why should anybody be more loyal to America than to another country devoted to similarly admirable propositions - such as New Zealand?
In reality, of course, the average person's most visceral loyalties are not to words, but to the other people, living and dead, in the group to which he belongs. Soldiers sometimes enlist to defend ideals. But when the bullets are flying, they don't charge machine guns to preserve the separation of powers. They risk their lives for the other guys in their platoon.
What best builds group-cohesion is working together for a common goal. As Hollywood WWII movies loved to show, sharing a foxhole forged solidarity among mutually suspicious white ethnics. If we don't strenuously emphasize loyalty and sacrifice toward one's fellow American citizens, human beings will naturally gravitate toward promoting their racial group and class.
You can get people to bond across racial and class lines, but seldom by preaching at them. For example, UC Berkeley students are constantly exhorted about equality and interracial solidarity. But the only place on campus where black and whites students can be seen making sacrifices for each other is on the football field. Black and white college football players are far more likely to eat lunch together or listen to each other's music than are their more articulate and politically correct fellow students simply because they have to play together as a team in order to win.
Another basic law of human psychology is this: You don't get somebody to like you by doing them a favor. That only tends to build resentment over the fact that they are needy and you are not. No, you ask them to do you a favor.
Thus, I believe one way to instill a love for the American people in immigrants applying for citizenship might be to require them to put in, say, 100 hours of community service (which could be performed in six weekends). We would have to carefully control what kind of service. Allowing, say, Chinese applicants to work in Chinatown would accomplish nothing. Nor would forcing them to work among the dregs of the native-born. No, immigrant applicants must work in organizations where at least half the volunteers were American citizens and where the people served are not primarily the immigrant's own ethnic group. Filling sandbags for the Red Cross during a flood or hurricane might be the perfect task.
Yet when I proposed requiring 100 hours of service at the recent McCormick Conference on Immigration and Citizenship [see Scott McConnell's Diary at /scott_mcconnell's_diary.htm], the neoconservatives were aghast. One pundit thought it far too onerous a burden. He proposed that instead we should be talking more about what America should be doing for immigrants.
Second, our community-building efforts need to begin far earlier in the immigration process. We cannot continue to wait passively until an immigrant might choose to apply for citizenship.
Today, many hundreds of millions of foreigners want to move to America. We could easily pick "the best of the best." Then we could turn the granting of permanent legal residence into a really moving ceremony. An orator could tell successful applicants: "You have been carefully selected from an enormous number of applicants from all over the world. Out of the 100 million or more who want to move to America, we have determined that you possess the highest potential to make this great country even better. Do not let America down."
Instead, winning permanent legal residency these days is a purely bureaucratic experience. The applicant simply receives a letter from the INS containing his Green Card (which isn't even green anymore — it's pink). And it would be hard to find anything morally inspiring to say about why we are letting the typical immigrant into the country. I mean, it wouldn't be terribly stirring to hear, "Out of all the potential immigrants from all the countries in the world, we had to pick you because, well, you're somebody's relative."
Third, to instill pride in being part of the American community, we must guard jealously the scarcity value of living in America. We must ask new Americans to show their loyalty by making a sacrifice. The social egalitarianism fundamental to our middle-class republic has always been based upon high wages and low land prices. Thus new immigrants must not excessively dilute the advantages of America by bringing in too many relatives.
It makes sense to reform the citizenship test. But any such reform will remain an exercise in barn-door-slamming until we decide upon rational answers to the two basic questions: How many immigrants? And which ones?
August 3, 2000