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Criticism Puts Citizenship Oath Revision on Hold

Conservatives pan immigration officials' modernization of the long-used pledge.

September 18, 2003|Shweta Govindarajan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An effort to modernize the oath of allegiance taken by new citizens has been put on hold after conservatives complained the proposed language would weaken the commitment to military service.

The new oath had been expected to be unveiled as early as Wednesday -- Citizenship Day -- in conjunction with swearing-in ceremonies around the nation. Instead, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau Citizenship and Immigration Services said, the agency's wordsmiths will make another attempt to revise what some regard as timeless prose. The wording of the oath, some of which dates to 1790, hasn't been revised for more than 50 years.

The agency "continues to identify potential revisions to the current oath," said Russ Knocke. "The substance would remain the same, but the language would remain more modern and meaningful."

Critics -- including former Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III -- said the new language would have watered down the commitment to allegiance and compromised the obligation to defend the United States, traditionally required of all new citizens.

"The proposed version drops the unconditional pledge to 'support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic,' " Meese wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "I am concerned that this construction diminishes and confuses the 'true faith and allegiance' ... necessary to foster a new citizen's ongoing attachment to this country."

Matthew Spalding, director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, said the proposed language would undermine what has been a wholehearted obligation to military service.

"The existing oath is an absolute statement," said Spalding. "The rearranging of the words [in the revised oath] makes it a qualified statement, and that's where we see the real problem."

Talk of updating the language of the citizenship oath had been circulating within the citizenship bureau for some time, said spokesman Knocke.

The proposed changes were part of an effort to make the oath resonate with today's immigrants without changing its substance, he said. The new language would have dropped such terms as "abjure" and "potentate." It was also much shorter.

But Meese, who served under President Reagan, said, "The effort to simplify the words will weaken the powerful language and change the substantive meaning of this most important citizenship pledge."

Supporters of the move to simplify the oath said it would be a symbolic way to welcome new immigrants into society.

"If you look at the old oath, with 'prince' and 'potentate' in it, it doesn't speak to today's spirit," said Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "The new version is much fresher, it sounds like something in English, in 2003. Why should we be saying something left over from the 1790s?"

Jacoby said she feared the controversy could derail the larger issue of how to make citizenship and naturalization a more compelling proposition for potential Americans.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) joined the fray Wednesday by introducing legislation that would preserve the current oath in law. That "will give the oath of allegiance the same status enjoyed by other key symbols and statements of being American: the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and our national motto," Alexander said.

The senator "had great concerns that the oath of allegiance was possibly going to be changed under the radar with no public input and no official process," said Alexia Poe, his press secretary. The agency had not yet sought public comment on the proposed changes.

In some respects, the proposed language is not in tune with the times, said Meese. It asks new citizens to give up any loyalty to a "foreign state." He argued that at a time when terrorists are attacking the United States, loyalties may instead be to ideologies and beliefs.

"In an era of international but non-state-specific terrorism, this singular reference is not sufficient," Meese wrote. "At the very least, an additional reference to 'sovereignty' or other appropriate term should be maintained."

Nearly 8 million immigrants are currently eligible for citizenship, according to a study released Wednesday by the Urban Institute. More than 2 million of them live in California.


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Reworking the oath of allegiance

The current citizenship oath:

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