When Cham Omot moved to the United States after his Sudanese village was destroyed in the country's 20-year civil war, he spoke no English and knew little about what it meant to be an American.
But five years later, the Minneapolis resident could rattle off America's 13 original states, name his local congressmen, and summarize the roots of the Constitution.
Mr. Omot spent many hours studying in a year-long class he took to prepare for the citizenship exam. Any immigrant who wishes to be a citizen must pass the 25-minute test in English (part oral and part written), which covers the ABCs of US history and government. Test-takers must know things like why Americans broke from British rule, the functions of different political offices, and how the three-branch government works (see sidebar). Applicants are also interviewed and asked to write down a dictated sentence, to show they have a basic command of English.
"It was a lot of hard work," Omot says, "but I got all of the questions right." He voted in his first national election this year.
To help potential citizens prepare, a growing range of study aids, courses, and tutors have surfaced. They include interactive Web programs like the Metro North Adult Education site at www.us citizenship.org/blanoka/indstudy.htm, teachers who hold study sessions on 100 commonly asked questions, and in-depth citizenship classes offered at colleges or adult-learning centers.
English speakers typically take a six-week "crash course" on civics and history. Others take semester or year-long classes that blend English instruction with civics.
Fifteen percent of applicants fail the exam, usually because their English is poor or they don't study. (They can take the test again at a later date.) About 898,300 of 1.3 million applicants were approved to be naturalized in the past year, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Mary Kristoff tutors immigrants in Connecticut, sometimes meeting with them at 5 a.m. to accommodate their schedules.
"Thousands of eligible immigrants ... fear they will fail the citizenship test," she says. To ease their concerns, she spends as much time as they need helping to review American history and government.
Nima Salehi's approach is similar. An ESL and citizenship teacher near Minneapolis, she aims to help her students master the 100 civics questions (for a complete list, see www.us citizenship.org/blanoka/100q.htm), understand the legal process, and hone their English through sample tests and mock interviews. The immigrants she primarily serves are dealing with disturbing memories from experiences in such countries as China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Russia, and the Dominican Republic. They might not understand what their basic freedoms are until they've completed the class.
Instructors agree that many immigrants eventually become savvier at civics than native-born Americans. The Sudanese refugees that Stephanie Pippo teaches in her course in Minneapolis are very politically aware, she says.
In contrast, a national test this year showed that one-third of US high school seniors lack a basic understanding of American government, a downward trend that some blame for low voter turnout among young people. Ms. Kristoff finds that many Americans don't know what the stripes on the US flag stand for, when the Constitution was written, or that Italy was an enemy in World War II. "[Immigrants] have a far greater appreciation for freedom," she says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society