Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Earn Your Stripes

"Who makes the laws in the United States?"

Here's a clue: If that's one of the questions asked when you take the official United States Citizenship Test, don't answer "lobbyists and special interests." The Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't give extra credit for creativity. Or honesty.

But ICE does recognize that its current test — which consists of a hundred possible questions, out of which an applicant is asked a random ten, and must get six right — might not be the best measure of a person's ability to function in the U.S. For starters, the queries are heavy on patriotic trivia -- "Who wrote 'The Star Spangled Banner'?" and "What do the stripes in the flag mean?" — that not even a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution could answer. And others cry out for more existential responses, if not a good punchline:

"What is Congress?" "What special group advises the president?" "Who helped the pilgrims in America?" "For how long do we elect the representatives?"

For too long, a Florida applicant might answer in connection with Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. Which could be why Miami, like Denver, is one of ten test cities now trying out 125 new questions that will form the basis of a new exam that ICE will introduce in 2008.

The goal is to come up with a test that's less a trivial pursuit and more a barometer of civic engagement. After all, some areas of study are more likely to guarantee successful assimilation into this country -- and certain questions could quickly determine who's ready to participate in the democratic process. For example:

"No one cares who wrote 'The Star Spangled Banner.' But what former Colorado comedian massacred it worse than any other singer — and then grabbed her crotch?" Answer: Roseanne

When you make a run for the border, where are you going?" Answer: Taco Bell, that bastion of American consumerism — and e-coli outbreaks.

"When you insult another group of citizens, as Mel Gibson and Michael Richards did, what happens?" Answer: You celebrate free speech by going on late-night TV.

"What does the red star on the Macy's logo mean?" Answer: Not communism, but the triumph of capitalism.

"Who makes the laws in the United States?" Answer: It'll cost you to find out. -- Patricia Calhoun