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Dana Parsons

An Instructive Guide to the Test of American Citizenship

February 11, 1996|Dana Parsons

On class days, which are Tuesdays and Thursdays, Virginia Faulkner usually gets up in the morning and thinks, "Oh, dear, class tonight."

If you're task-driven, you know what she means.

But then she gets there around 6 o'clock, to the schoolhouse next to the La Purisima Church in Orange, and the misgivings melt away.

The students begin arriving, truck drivers and nannies and cooks and factory workers. Some are in their 20s, some in their 70s. Some are retired, and some are working two jobs. Some have fun in class; others are so nervous when she gives them their paperwork that their hands shake. They tend to have little formal education, but they wouldn't be there if they didn't all want the same thing: U.S. citizenship.

And that's what Virginia Faulkner, a widow with six grown children and 12 grandchildren, helps them get. Volunteering along with four others from the parish, she's preparing their parishioners--mostly Latin American immigrants--as well as people from other neighborhoods for the test that will make them U.S. citizens.

Those citizen-induction ceremonies always get to me. It's like when they play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Olympics. I think it's because, in both instances, you get a pure moment when being a patriot isn't cheapened or commercialized.

It's no secret in the La Purisima parish that illegal immigrants live in the neighborhood, but Faulkner notes that anyone taking the citizenship test must have proper papers. Classes are offered in both Spanish and English, but most people have to take the citizenship test in English. The classes began last September and average about 15 people a night.

For fun, Faulkner sent me a list of the 100 questions on which citizenship tests are based. At crunch time, applicants have to get at least 12 of 20 correct. Not to get catty about it, but I'd love to give the test to everyone who thinks that just being born in the USA makes him or her a good citizen. In short, they talk the talk, but can they walk the walk?

I took the test and thought it was pretty easy. Then again, I'm an outstanding citizen.

But how many Americans know how many members of the House of Representatives there are (435), how many people serve on the U.S. Supreme Court (nine), who California's two senators are (Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein), or who said, "Give me liberty or give me death." (18th century patriot Patrick Henry.) One confession: I tabbed only 12 of the original 13 colonies, slipping up by including Connecticut and omitting Pennsylvania.

Faulkner was a social worker before quitting to raise her family. She's taken on various volunteer jobs before and was eager to work with the Latino immigrant community in Orange, although she doesn't speak Spanish well enough to carry on a conversation.

Yes, the attendees realize they have to learn the stuff to get citizenship, but Faulkner believes they really care too. "One thing that keeps us going is their interest and dedication."

I asked her why some are nervous in class. "I think this is a big step, and they're afraid they may not be up to it, that they won't be able to answer right. Part of what we hope to do is give them confidence. They're getting something out of this. We'll go around the room and ask why they want to become citizens. Some say this is a nice place to live, or their family wants to live here. Others say it's so they can get a better job. Others, so they can vote.

"I'll tell you one thing. Since 187 [the proposition cutting public benefits to illegal immigrants], they feel motivated, where before they could just go on renewing their green card. That's one of the things that impelled me to do this. I think there may need to be some change in immigration policies, but the people who are here and that I feel were being pointed at, they're good, hard-working people who don't try to take advantage of things they shouldn't. They want a good life for their children and themselves, and they want an education."

We frequently hear that the newest citizens often know more civics than native-born Americans. Faulkner has seen some of that. She's given the sample questions to friends and relatives, and they're often surprised at what they know--and don't know.

"Ordinary Americans take for granted they know this stuff, but when it comes to being asked, they really don't."

I know what she means. Come to think of it, what rights are guaranteed in the 1st Amendment?

Dana Parsons' columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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