WASHINGTON -- Well over half a million immigrants gained their American citizenship in 2011. One hurdle they all had to pass -- a hurdle even most citizens would struggle with -- is an oral test on U.S. government and history.
Given annually during the final naturalization interview, where one's background and application are reviewed, the test requires correct answers to at least 6 of 10 questions on anything from U.S. geography to famous figures. The questions are selected randomly from a list of 100, and test takers must answer out loud and in English.
"Why does the U.S. flag have 13 stripes?" could be one question. "Name one U.S. territory," might be another, or, "What is one responsibility that is only for U.S. citizens?"
To help immigrants better prepare for the test, the Smithsonian has launched a Website called, "Preparing for the Oath: U.S. History for Civics and Citizenship." The site covers an array of topics, from historic events and people to key concepts, using artifacts from the museum's collection.
Organized by theme -- "Congress," "Courts," "The 1900's" -- the Website uses media vignettes to illustrate the difference, for example, between the powers of state government vs. federal; voting rights; American geography (What are the two longest rivers in the U.S.?); and, most recently, "What major event happened on September 11, 2001?"
The site was announced alongside a naturalization ceremony for 12 candidates for citizenship at the National Museum of American History, which partnered on the Website with USCIS. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright – herself a naturalized "citizen by choice" – donated several objects from her diplomatic career, including a red wool dress she wore at the public announcement of her nomination as the first female U.S. Secretary of State in 1996.
"When you get home tonight," Albright said, addressing the dozen new Americans after their swearing-in, "do what I did: put your citizenship document in the safest place you can find. It's a license to a dream."
She emphasized that "we need immigrants," and that the U.S. is strengthened continually "by newly arriving men, women and children" from countries like the dozen represented that day, including Afghanistan, Mexico, and Kenya. "Let us pray that day never comes, when the door to America is swung shut," she said.
Albright recalled her own immigration story, how her family had moved once a year for the first 18 years of her life, while fleeing Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia. From damp basements in Belgrade and London, she arrived to New York Harbor aboard the S.S. America as a girl, and worried that she would be "in America, but not a part of it."
A scholarship to Wellesley College cut a path towards education and public life, and two years later she was naturalized as a U.S. citizen. Next week, Albright will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Obama.
Chamali Kala Singh, 20, was one of several sworn in at the ceremony. An active member of the armed services, Singh said after receiving her certificate, "It was an honor for me to finally say that I'm defending my country." She arrived to the U.S. at age six from Trinidad and Tobago.
"There's an enormous sense of pride and freedom," she added, as she and her boyfriend waited for a turn to be photographed with Albright.
In announcing the new Website, Secretary of the Smithsonian Wayne Clough said it fit with the Museum's mission to "tell the story of every American to all Americans."
Census posters from the 1930's and 40's, for example, and the desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, are within the Museum's walls to teach, he said, and they belong to the public.
Clough cautioned the crowd, however, saying the Website's practice test is not exactly easy. "See if you can pass it!" he challenged. "I'm not going to tell you my score…but I did pass."
(Sample question: What year was the Constitution written?)
Answer: 1787. (Confession: this writer chose 1776!)