08/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

American Ignorance

Norma and Alejandro immigrated to the United States from El Salvador over ten years ago. They have three children, all of whom are younger than twelve. Norma works at night as a custodian for Harvard University, and Alejandro has devoted a lot of his time, recently, to dealing with newly diagnosed health problems. Both can tell you how many members there are in the House of Representatives and what war Woodrow Wilson was president during. Just a few weeks ago, the couple drove to the United States Customs and Immigration office in Boston to attend their swearing-in ceremony and become citizens of the United States.

Do you know what it takes to become a citizen of the United States these days? Until this year, I had no idea. Now, I do know what it takes, and I wonder: How many native born Americans would in fact have trouble passing the citizenship test? And, what does it say about our country if, as I certainly believe might be the case, America's newest citizens know more about American civics and history than many native born Americans?

I've been doing a lot of writing, and talking, about Los Angeles lately, as is only appropriate, since Tuesday June 30th marked the publication of my first novel, Hancock Park, which is named after the Los Angeles neighborhood. (Available on Amazon and at bookstores near you!) But, today, I'd like to broaden my scope a little.

I started citizenship tutoring last fall, and for the past year, I met weekly with Norma and Alejandro to help them with the application process for US citizenship. I have loved tutoring them. For me, it hits close to home. My second mother, the babysitter who raised me since birth, immigrated to America from El Salvador. I remember when she took her citizenship test, when her children came to the country, when they all became U.S. citizens. Now, she has grandchildren, who I have babysat many times and am very close with.

This past October, the United States Customs and Immigration Services updated the citizenship form and changed the test questions around a little, so as to provide an
"emphasis on the fundamental concepts of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, will help encourage citizenship applicants to learn and identify with the basic values we all share as Americans" (

The test is comprised of an oral, reading, and written portion, and it tests basic knowledge of concepts of US government as well as knowledge and understanding of the English language. At my tutor training session last fall, we were told that all of the questions would be ones we, the tutors, would certainly know the answers to. Nervous that this would not actually be the case, and anxious to know just how much US Civics 101 brushing up I'd need to do before my tutoring session, I flipped through my citizenship textbook.

"Name one state that borders Canada." Okay, this is doable.

"What state has the biggest population?" A little tougher, but still, just fine. California. My home state.

"Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers." Oh damn. In my head, I see a collage of the faces of the Founding Fathers, except they all look very alike--white, serious, middle aged, and all clad in white wigs. I definitely wrote an essay about Federalist No. 10 in high school, which argued against political "factions." But wasn't Federalist No. 10 published under some pseudonym? Who was the actual author? Madison? Hamilton? I think; I am by no means sure. My US History teachers would be appalled. I check the answer. Yes, both Madison and Hamilton. John Jay and "Publius" are also acceptable answers, according to USCIS.

I find it hard to believe that all American citizens would know the answer to this question, let alone the answers to many other questions in the new naturalization test.
One day this past spring, as I was walking across Harvard Yard, I overheard a tourist in a tour group ask, "Didn't Obama go here?"

"Yes, he went to law school here," the tour guide answers. "In fact, seven of the ten current Supreme Court justices went to Harvard."

Um. Not so much. As Norma and Alejandro could both tell you, there are only nine justices on the Supreme Court.

This past month, Norma and Alejandro took--and passed--the citizenship test. Just a few weeks ago, they were sworn in as citizens of the United States. I couldn't be prouder.
The application process was long, and even though the test questions may have been updated, some of the questions on the N-400 form, which must be submitted prior to taking the test, feel slightly bizarre and outdated. One question reads, "Between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945, did you work for or associate in any way...with the Nazi government of Germany?" Ok, I get that Nazis are bad, as are those who were affiliated with them, and I understand the reasoning behind this question--but I have to ask, how many of today's citizenship applicants were even alive during the aforementioned years?

I think my favorite question on the N-400, however, would have to be, "Have you ever committed a crime or offense for which you were not arrested?" I think it goes without saying that, if you have committed such an offense, now would certainly not be the best time to 'fess up to it.

Once an applicant has filled out and filed the N-400 (and committed his or her answers to memory--this is extremely important, as sometimes test administrators will try to trip applicants up, make them nervous, and try to get them to say something that contradicts what was written on the form), the waiting game begins; it's usually a number of months before USCIS gets back to the applicant. At that point, a date for the naturalization test is assigned, when the applicant will go, in person, for the oral, reading, and written interview.
A month ago, Newt Gingrich made a speech in which he proclaimed, "I am not a citizen of the world. I think the entire concept is intellectual nonsense and stunningly dangerous." No, Mr. Gingrich says, he is an American--not a citizen of the world. His statement encapsulates some of the ignorance of the politically far right (and brings to mind a fantastic essay by Martha Nussbaum, "For Love of Country?" which I would recommend Mr. Gingrich read).
This is a world of increasing cosmopolitanism, and this country, America, is one filled with immigrants from all different walks of life. On the 4th of July, we celebrate the birth of this nation, and that's a great thing. However, we should also remember to view ourselves, and our country, through the lens of today's increasingly cosmopolitan world.

I am proud to be an American. I'm proud to have helped Norma and Alejandro along their path to becoming U.S. citizens. And I am proud to stand with them and say that, above all, I am proud to be a citizen of the world. This is not to say that I condone and align myself with the atrocities still committed across the world today, but I believe that it's up to us to change the state of things, not hide behind a belief in American exceptionalism. We all live in this world, and it's our job to celebrate it, and also to make it a better place.

This is my July 4th blog. Yes, I realize that it is no longer July 4th and that this blog is a little late, but seeing as how most of the delegates didn't sign the Declaration of Independence until August 2nd, I hope this belated posting won't be too much of an issue.

Happy birthday, America.