Swearing Oaths
Damaging the oath of allegiance.


John J. Miller

The federal government is about to change the Oath of Allegiance that immigrants take at citizenship ceremonies — and make it worse.

NRO has obtained a copy of the new oath, which the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services plans to unveil on September 17 at an event in Washington, D.C. It will be published in the Federal Register that day and be made effective immediately, according to BCIS spokesman Russ Knocke. The public won’t have a chance to comment on the changes until after the fact.

Let’s be clear about something up front: The new oath is not a disaster. One of its well-meaning goals is to revise the outdated language of the current oath, which includes words that ordinary Americans almost never use, such as “abjure” and “potentate.” Yet it also sheds a worthy martial flavor and introduces a clause that one day may give some clever ACLU lawyer enough leeway to make mischief with the meaning of American citizenship.

Here is the new Oath of Allegiance, as it appears in an internal document from BCIS (an agency within the Department of Homeland Security):

Solemnly, freely, and without mental reservation, I hereby renounce under oath all allegiance to any foreign state. My fidelity and allegiance from this day forward is to the United States of America. I pledge to support, honor, and be loyal to the United States, its Constitution, and its laws. Where and if lawfully required, I further commit myself to defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, either by military, noncombatant, or civilian service. This I do solemnly swear, so help me God.

Immigration policy junkies will note that this tracks pretty closely to the language proposed by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform in 1997. It also meets the basic criteria for an oath, as described in federal law.

On the rhetorical side of things, the new oath drops a very nice phrase that’s in the current one: “I will bear arms on behalf of the United States.” To be sure, the new oath mentions “military service,” but not by employing that wonderfully patriotic and resonant phrase “bear arms.” Did it remind somebody too much of the Second Amendment?

There’s a substantive problem as well. It’s the clause at the start of the fourth sentence: “Where and if lawfully required.” What possible purpose do these words serve? It’s not unreasonable to interpret them as meaning that people in “military, noncombatant, or civilian service” — i.e., working for the government — sometimes are not legally bound to defend the Constitution and U.S. laws. Several BCIS personnel have in fact raised alarms over this, but without effect.

There has been talk for years that the Oath of Allegiance was going to undergo some judicious editing, but most people assumed the changes at least would be discussed before they were imposed. The BCIS plan, however, is to make the new oath official less than two weeks from now — and to keep it under wraps until then. Why the rush? Apparently because September 17 is Citizenship Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. This is also a date on which many immigrants are traditionally sworn-in as citizens. Why the secrecy? Somebody must want to give a speech that makes news about how the Bush administration is helping immigrants. Knocke of BCIS says Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge will be at the September 17 event.

Rather than racing forward with this new oath, here’s a better idea: Tell the public that there’s going to be a new oath in place by Citizenship Day 2004 — and that anybody is welcome to submit a proposal, so long as it abides by five principles encoded in law. This would generate enormous interest in the meaning of citizenship and might inspire some of our finest writers to give it a try. Wouldn’t you like to see what talents like David McCullough, Peggy Noonan, and Tom Wolfe might invent? Or would you rather have the Oath of Allegiance placed in the hands of a faceless bureaucrat who hasn’t ever published anything outside the Federal Register?

If we’re going to change the Oath of Allegiance, let’s slow down and do it the right way.