Washington — Alicia Bowers, a Panamanian immigrant, can easily recall that George Washington was the first U.S. president. She knows the three branches of government are legislative, executive and judicial.
But Bowers, who took a course to study for the U.S. citizenship test she plans to take, was stumped when asked why there are three branches of government.
She also couldn't answer two other draft questions the government wants to try out on 5,000 immigrants who volunteer in 10 cities in an attempt to revise the citizenship test.
The government unveiled to mixed reaction 144 draft test questions Thursday. Officials plan to begin trying them out early next year and begin using a redesigned citizenship test in 2008.
"The people, they have to go to school to study that and take some courses in order to answer and have the right answers," Bowers said after she couldn't answer "What does the Constitution do?" and "Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence."
"Even with that, so many people, they barely read or write and can't understand that kind of question," said Bowers, of Keene, near Fort Worth, Texas. Some of the questions were read to her over the telephone.
But she said understanding the concepts will help people understand what's happening in the country and why things are done a certain way.
"It's good because the people know how the system here in the United States works," she said.
Federal officials said that is what they hope to achieve.
Emilio Gonzalez, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, a Homeland Security Department agency, said immigrants should know what they are swearing allegiance to when they take the oath of citizenship.
"You ought to internalize by that time the very values that make this country what it is, the very reason why you are raising your right hand. ... Citizenship is not test taking."
Among the draft questions are some hinging on current events, such as "What major event happened on Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States?" and "Who is the speaker of the House of Representatives now?" The answers are: Terrorists attacked the United States, and, come January, Nancy Pelosi will be speaker when Democrats take over next year.
Applicants must answer six of 10 questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the test. Some questions will have more than one answer. Like the current test, the questions are not multiple choice.
Immigrants can apply twice for citizenship, and get two tries per application to pass the test. The passage rates on the first application are 84 percent and on second application are 95 percent with the current test.
Citizenship and Immigration Services expects to spend about $6.5 million to revise the test. The agency attempted once before to try out new questions, but failed and scuttled those.
After the question tryouts, the government will spend a year honing and whittling them to 100, again with consultation from the various community groups and educators.