Assimilation is not a dirty word

Observations from taking the Life in the UK test

Karol Markowicz made a case for assimilation in response to an op-ed in the Washington Post that called for an end to birthright citizenship. And she’s correct, birthright citizenship and our ability to assimilate newcomers has been one of the primary sources of America’s success. And this has never come home more starkly to me than it did in the spring of 2011, when I took the Life in the UK test to become a permanent resident of the United Kingdom.

London, May 2011

Thursday, I took the Life in the UK test. The LUK test (my acronym not theirs) is their naturalization test. For anyone planning on taking the test, I will discuss the process — the unnecessarily drawn out process — at the end of this post. First, however, a bit about the test itself, because it explains much about the UK’s problems assimilating immigrants.

Remember JFK’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”? Hold onto that for a moment.

The LUK test study guide reads like a help manual for new immigrants to the UK. ‘Here is what life in the UK can do for you.’ There is some civics, but the topic is very basic and watered down — where does the Prime Minister live? — and surprisingly, to an American at least, covers the established church in England and Scotland as much as Parliament. The bulk of the test, however, covers PC topics like minority populations and women’s suffrage and social welfare topics like how to use the NHS and how to find a job.

Granted, some of these are important things to know. Disseminating such information is necessary. But this test is the first step for conferring the privilege of citizenship. Shouldn’t the LUK test cover the candidate’s knowledge of British culture, of what it means to be British?

Contrast the US test. The US naturalization test is a civics exam. There are 100 questions. The immigration officer asks the candidate 10 of those — no multiple choice. Here are the current questions. Note that none of the questions discuss the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986, which makes it illegal to turn laboring women and others in need of urgent care away from medical care. None of the questions ask under what circumstances a landlord can modify rent or someone can employ children, both of which appeared on my 25 question LUK test. We have limitations on each of those, of course, but those are details, not threshold knowledge for new citizens. Also, on my LUK test — I am not making this up — how to get tickets to watch Parliament, a tourist question.

In short, and back to Kennedy, the US test covers the basic knowledge an immigrant needs to do things for their new country. How to join and serve. The UK test covers what British citizenship can do for the immigrant. How to arrive and be served.

With this test, that Brits commonly see and resent immigrants coming in and taking advantage of the social welfare state is frankly to be expected.

Regardless of the merits of the test, however, I had to take it. Yasha has a five year work visa, which expires in a few weeks. Extensions are not an option. At the end of your visa period, you either go home or get started on the Path to Citizenship. The LUK is the first step.

Taking the LUK test

First you call to make the appointment. On the appointed day, you take yourself, your passport, £50, and something to read to the test center. When you arrive, you sign in. The sign in sheet won’t be easy to find and the other test takers are not always helpful in pointing the sheet out. (Might have been my group, but they watched me flounder in two endless lines at the library desk and silently went into the test center at which point I saw one of the people had been sitting on the sign-in sheet.) Once in the center, somebody gives an overview of the test, tells you to get your ID and money out (cash or card) and come up to the desk when called.

At this point, things get weird. The clerk calls each person individually to present ID, get checked off the appointment list, pay, and receive a computer number. Once everyone is at their computer, about 25–30 people, another clerk calls you to another computer, takes your passport and enters your name, date of birth, and passport number into the computer and asks why, specifically, you seek UK citizenship. He enters that and sends you back to your computer. Once he enters everyone’s information, then he explains the test again. At this point a login screen is on your computer, but you don’t login yourself. The guy goes around to each computer and logs in everyone. Then you can start the practice test…which you have to take twice. It is only 4 questions each time, but still the computer won’t let you proceed until you practice. (The UK doesn’t have a rep as a nanny state for nothing.)

The test itself is 25 multiple choice questions. You have 45 minutes to take the test. As you might guess, it does not take everyone 45 minutes to take the test. If English is not your first language, you might need the time, but otherwise the test is not particularly difficult. Yet, you cannot finish the test, get your results, and go. Even though the test is computerized and the computer knows your results as soon as you confirm you are finished, the test monitors will not give out the results until everyone is finished. You go to the waiting area and read for a half hour plus, until they call you individually to receive your results.

Perhaps there is a good reason for this procedure. I simply don’t know. My best guess is the British habit of habit. Brits do lots of things because that is the way they have always done them. I suspect this time intensive procedure is a vestige from when the test was administered on paper and hand scored.

One last detail about taking the LUK test: the test centers aren’t in the nicest parts of town. Mine was in Brixton and I foolishly expected to get back by taxi. On the test day I did not have my Oyster card, and I was short on time anyway. I took a taxi. There are two types of places that don’t lend themselves to taxis: remote or low traffic areas and lower income areas. Brixton is the latter, and at my specific location it was of the rough variety. When we finished, I was waiting at the library doors with 10 other people who hoped to get taxis. I was already later than I expected and poor Silvie was home with 6 children. (I had forgotten I was taking the test until Tuesday. I’d taken two other kids for the afternoon. All in all, not my best planned week.)

I could have taken the Tube by cash but thought a single, not from around here gal, confined in the Tube station was more of a mark than walking down a very busy street in broad daylight. So I did the London thing and simply started walking where I needed to go, knowing I’d eventually find a cab. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it wasn’t the day London got two months of rain in a day. When the inevitable cab showed up about half an hour later, the cabbie laughed at me when I gave him my address. “What were you doing here?” he asked. My advice, arrange for transport ahead of time.

When I told her that I passed, Pip Owens asked me if I felt “frightfully British.” Right now, I do but that is because I am composing this post in a grey skyed Hampshire with a cup of tea at my side. The test itself made me feel more American, which I doubt is the intent of British immigration officials.

Banner image of JFK’s Inaugural Address via nydailynews.com

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Leslie Loftis

Leslie Loftis

Teacher of life admin and curator of commentary. Occasional writer.

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