September 8, 2011 | Sun and New Times Staff

Pencils ready, citizens

Photo by Steve E. Miller

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, an estimated 1,200 people were scheduled to gather together in San Francisco to be sworn in as United States citizens. It’s an event that occurs every three months in the state’s cultural capital, as well as a number of other cities around California. San Francisco alone naturalizes about 25,000 people per year.

It was the naturalization test that interested us, with 10 questions randomly selected from a pool of 100, and a mandate that six correct answers out of 10 passes. Currently, the pass rate is 92 percent. And the questions are readily available online for study beforehand. Also, applicants are given two opportunities to take the test. If they fail on the first try, they have between 60 and 90 days to retake the portion they failed.

So we took the test to prominent local citizens and politicians to see how they fared, and whether they thought the questions themselves were a fair and accurate determination of who we are as Americans and what we ought to know about our nation.

John Peschong

John Peschong may have had an advantage taking the citizenship test in the New Times kitchen. As chairman of the SLO County Republican Party, he’s involved in outreach to immigrants interested in becoming U.S. citizens. This includes helping them along the path to citizenship.

So when we asked him a sample 10 questions, Peschong aced every single one.

What is the name of the vice president of the United States now?

“Joe Biden from Delaware,” he replied.

And if the president can no longer serve, who becomes president?

“The vice president.” And Peschong can list the next dozen or so figures in the chain of command as well, though the test would never ask it.

“Where I get confused is number 15, 16,” he admitted.

What he’d like to see are a couple of questions pertaining to the process of turning a bill into law, which are currently part of the test. Over the course of his outreach, Peschong said he’s witnessed a lack of understanding about this process, which can make it difficult for people to become involved in the political process once they are, in fact, citizens. But generally, he thinks the test is an important step for would-be citizens to take.

“It’s part of a multi-tiered program, so it’s just one part,” he said. “You can’t wrap everything Americans are in 100 questions. As part of an overall path to citizenship, I think it’s valuable.”