Don’t Believe What You See on Sitcoms. You Really Don’t Have to Study That Hard for American Citizenship

Pop-culture trope: debunked!
Don’t Believe What You See on Sitcoms. You Really Don’t Have to Study That Hard for American Citizenship

Thanks to fearmongering by one U.S. presidential candidate that’s so sustained that his supposed opponents have also joined the cry, immigration is a rising issue for likely voters in the forthcoming election. As a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! proved, for many Americans, concerns about other people’s legal citizenship may be so intense that it crowds out their own knowledge of basic questions that might appear on the citizenship test. (Jump to 11:50.)

This season on Animal Control, immigration to the U.S. has also been top of mind for Victoria (Grace Palmer). In a shocking moment in the premiere earlier this month, Victoria’s co-workers find out that the sexual adventurer they thought they knew had been married this whole time — a fact that comes to light when her husband serves her with divorce papers. New Zealand native Victoria explains that it was just a green-card marriage, but it does mean she’s going to have to figure out another legal pathway to U.S. residency. In last week’s episode, Victoria’s colleague Frank (Joel McHale) reminds the audience of her situation by heaving a citizenship study guide off her desk and needling her about not having cracked it yet.

I realize that the quirks of the American immigration system are an evergreen pop-cultural topic, but as a legal immigrant, I feel it’s my responsibility to demystify them when I can. The fact is that you don’t really have to study for American citizenship.

To be clear: This is absolutely not a flex. How could it be, when the questions you’re asked are entirely drawn from middle school civics classes? Do you know what ocean is on the American West Coast? Can you name the U.S. war between the North and the South?  Do you know what major event happened in this country on September 11, 2001? (Tip: Mariah Carey’s album Glitter did come out that day, but that’s not the answer they’re looking for.) 

If you knew all of these: Congratulations, you could be halfway to passing the test, because they only ask you 10 questions, and once you get 6 right, they stop.

Of course, it’s not guaranteed that any of those three questions will be the ones that come up in your final citizenship interview, but it’s still easy to prepare. The 10 questions your examiner has for you are pulled from a list of 100, and all of them are online, which is why the Animal Control study guide prop made me laugh out loud. Unless Victoria accidentally acquired an ultra large print edition, or one with multiple hundreds of practice tests, there’s no need for a U.S. citizenship study guide to be the size of a phone book. How is this one over 100 pages, and where does this publisher get the temerity to charge close to $20 for it?! Maybe getting ripped off by a stranger purporting to help you is intended to acclimate you to day-to-day American life.

Animal Control makes hay of the gaps in Victoria’s knowledge of America, growing up as she did on the opposite side of the planet. But unless she was very intentional about ignoring pop culture, the answers to probably half of the test questions insinuated themselves in her brain by osmosis through her existence in the English-speaking world — certainly, that was the case for me as a Canadian. Taking the test as a non-English speaker is, I’m sure, more challenging, but you probably still know before you bust out a practice test that presidential elections happen every four years assuming your country was developed enough to air The West Wing dubbed in your native language. (And if you did: I guess that, as an American citizen now, I also bear collective guilt for that happening to you. Sorry!)

But just because the citizenship test itself is relatively easy, that doesn’t mean the immigration process is, as the current feature comedy Problemista portrays. Former Saturday Night Live writer Julio Torres wrote and directed the film, and stars as Alejandro, who moved to the U.S. from El Salvador because applications to his dream job at a Hasbro toy incubator are only accepted from within the country and its territories. When he loses the job for which his work visa was approved, Alejandro has a month to find another employer to sponsor him or risk either deportation or precarious gray-market employment. The paradox: an application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services costs thousands of dollars, but unless you have a visa or green card, you legally aren’t permitted to earn money from a U.S. employer, which forces Alejandro into various money-making schemes in which he’s highly subject to exploitation — particularly by Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an emotionally volatile art critic. 

I assure you it’s a comedy, but a very dark one, about the absurdity of a system that seems to make no room for the complexities of real people’s real lives.

The good news for Victoria: Even if she doesn’t want to crack her gigantic study guide or play the organ for a minor league baseball team if it means learning the rules of the game, she can probably retain her legal status even after her divorce. And to any native-born Americans reading this who feel smug — tell every aspiring American you know not to spend any money on a book of 100 questions, no matter what they see on TV.

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