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Awkward: Americans can't pass the US citizenship test

A Rwandan immigrant gets her US citizenship.
A Rwandan immigrant gets her US citizenship.
John Moore/Getty

In a video posted earlier this week, members of the Immigrant Archive Project — an oral history project that collects the stories of American immigrants — did a series of "man-on-the-street" interviews with passersby in Miami.

The twist: they asked questions from the US citizenship test that every immigrant is required to take in order to naturalize. Not to spoil anything, but the people they interviewed — all of whom are native-born American citizens — didn't fare too well:

To put this in context, as of December 2013, 91 percent of immigrants who took the full citizenship test passed it by getting six of ten questions correct. (They're given a list of 100 possible questions and answers to study beforehand.)

By contrast, of the 15 people whom the Immigrant Archive Project people interviewed, only one got six out of ten questions correct: that's a pass rate of less than 7 percent.

Now, it's possible that the US citizens in the video weren't representative of the country as a whole. But polls of the American public show that native-born citizens aren't exactly A students in civics. When USA Today asked ten questions from the citizenship test in a poll in 2012, only 65 percent of Americans got a passing score. The year before that, Newsweek found just 62 percent of Americans could pass their own citizenship test.

Even more embarrassingly, in the video above, the interviewer himself gets one fact wrong. He says that George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence. Washington was busy fighting the Revolutionary War at the time, and wasn't a signer.

The citizenship test is also one of the easiest parts of naturalization

It's true that immigrants who take the naturalization test are given questions and answers to study in advance — and that, as journalist Dafna Linzer found out when she got naturalized, knowing too much about American history can actually make the test more confusing. But taking the citizenship test is also one of the easier parts of immigrating and naturalizing in the United States.

By the time they're eligible to take the test, immigrants have had to spend five years (or three in certain circumstances) as legal permanent residents, i.e. green-card holders. Depending on their work and family situations, they had to spend several years before that in the legal status that ultimately made them eligible for a green card (or waiting outside the country for their number to come up in the family backlog). Hardest of all, they have to have found a way to immigrate legally to the United States to begin with.

By the time they've met all of those requirements, taking one little test is a snap.

Correction: This article originally made one reference to "the written citizenship test." The US civics part of the naturalization test is conducted orally. The reference to the "written" test has been omitted.

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