Why are US visa questions so weird?

Journalist Michael Skapinker notes in the FT that US Visa questions include

  • Are you coming to the United States to engage in prostitution or unlawful commercialized vice or have you been engaged in prostitution or procuring prostitutes within the past 10 years?
  • Do you have a communicable disease of public health significance such as tuberculosis (TB)?
  • Do you belong to a clan or tribe?
  • Have you, while serving as a government official, been responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom?
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization?

In researching the reasons for these questions — which seem unlikely in the extreme to ever have anyone answer “Yes” — Skapinker uncovers a rich tapestry of reasons they are posed to overseas visitors.

Take the one about TB. Officials at Ellis Island used to keep members of the huddled masses out of these shores if they were infected.

Many of the others — such as asking terrorists to declare themselves — are there so that when they, natch, answer “No” and are later apprehended they can be deported since they obtained the visa by fraud or misrepresentation.

The question that most perplexes Skapinker is the one asking foreign government officials if they have ever been responsible for “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom. He wonders if mild violations of religious freedom are acceptable. Apparently the only person to have been barred admission on these grounds is Narendra Modi, tipped by some to become the next Indian Prime Minister, for alleged complicity in the deadly 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

US FlagBeyond the mysteries of the visitor visa questions are the ones posed to those of us who wish to became US Citizens. I well remember hearing the claim of one friend from Ireland who, when asked “What flies over the White House?” knowingly replied “Crows”. Many citizenship questions would, however, stump the average American. Example:

  • The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
  • Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
  • The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

Answers here.

My own proficiency with the English language was tested when I was taking my citizenship test by having to carefully write the phrase “I usually drive my car to work.”

I’m glad to say that I passed the test, even though I now take the ferry to work, which is where I usually read the Financial Times.

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