Speeches & Floor Statements
Posted on September 11, 2003
Earlier today I talked about remembering September 11th. Terrible things happened on this day two years ago, but it also brought us together as we remembered what it means to be an American. This afternoon I want to address an important statement on what it means to be a citizen of the United States: the Oath of Allegiance, to which all new citizens swear in court when they are naturalized. I rise this afternoon to announce that I will shortly introduce legislation to make the current Oath of Allegiance the law of the land. Doing so 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. All these symbols and statements have been specifically approved by Congress and are now a matter of law. The Oath of Allegiance, which is currently a matter of mere federal regulation, ought to be treated with the same dignity. I do this today because it has come to my attention that the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, or BCIS, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, may be planning to change the Oath of Allegiance that immigrants take to become a citizen of this nation. According to the National Review Online, "The federal government is about to change the Oath of Allegiance that immigrants take at citizenship ceremonies . . ." The article goes on to say that the BCIS intends to announce this change - perhaps make it effective immediately - next week, on September 17, Citizenship Day, during Constitution Week, which honors the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. I don't know whether it will happen or not, but I've read the new oath that the BCIS may make public next week, and I prefer the traditional one. The Oath of Allegiance is a fundamental statement on the commitment of becoming a United States citizen. It should not be altered by a government agency, no matter how well intentioned. And I don't doubt that the government employees involved in this process do, indeed, have the best of intentions. But any change should be subject to the approval of this body - it must be enshrined in law. In the first five months of this fiscal year, 166,968 immigrants took the Oath and were naturalized as citizens of this country. The oath assumed its present form in the 1950's and was first adopted in federal regulation in 1929. But some of the language dates all the way back to 1790. Let me describe for a moment how this oath is used in practice. Imagine that we are in a federal courthouse in Nashville, such as the one that I was in October 2001. It is naturalization day. The room is filled with anxious persons, talking among themselves in halting English. They are obviously with their families and closest friends. They are neatly dressed. Most faces are radiant. There are 77 persons from 22 countries who have passed their exams, learned English, passed a test about American government, survived a character investigation, paid their taxes and waited in line for five years to be a citizen of the United States of America. The bailiff shouts, "God Save this Honorable court," and on that day the judge, Aleta Trauger, walks in. She asks each of the applicants to stand, raise their right hand, and repeat the following oath. I am going to say it, and I hope you will listen carefully - it makes an impression. "I, (and the citizen-to-be states his or her name), "Hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; "That I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; "That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; "That I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; "That I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; "That I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion: "So help me God." Now, that is quite an oath. It has strength. It has clarity. Sounds like it might have been written by some rowdy patriots in Philadelphia or Williamsburg. Yet, surprisingly, Congress has never voted on the content of this Oath. We have left it to federal regulators. That's not how we treat other symbols of our nation or other statements on the meaning of being an American. For example, the American Flag, with its 50 stars - one for each state - and 13 stripes for the original colonies, cannot be altered by federal regulation. The only way a star gets added is when Congress acts to admit a new state. And we've never changed the 13 stripes since the flag was first adopted in 1777. The Pledge of Allegiance, which we repeat each morning in the United States Senate, can't be altered by federal regulation. The Pledge is a statement of some of the values of the American Creed: "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." What if a federal agency decided we should take out justice, just saying "with liberty for all"? It can't happen: because the Pledge can only be altered by Act of Congress, as it last was in 1954 when the phrase "under God" was added. Or, the National Motto, "In God We Trust," which appears on all our coins and dollar bills - it can't be altered by federal regulation. It is a fundamental statement of the religious character of the American people - even though we don't permit and don't want the establishment of state religion. The Treasury Department can't decide to leave the Motto off the next dollar bill it prints because the Motto was adopted by Congress - at first in 1864 to be printed on the 2-cent piece, and later as the official National Motto in 1956. Our National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, can't be changed by federal regulation. It, too, is a statement of our values, declaring our country "the land of the free and the home of the brave." If a government agency decided it preferred America the Beautiful, or the Battle Hymn of the Republic, or the song we sang on the steps of the Capitol this morning, God Bless America, all of which are great songs, the agency would have to ask Congress to act. Why? Because the Star Spangled Banner was named our National Anthem by law in 1931. Likewise, the Oath of Allegiance should not be altered lightly - by a government agency, without public comment, and without approval from Congress. Of the five symbols and statements I've described - the Flag, the Anthem, the Pledge, the Motto, and the Oath, only the Oath of Allegiance is legally binding on those who take it. New citizens must take, and they must sign it. To be clear, I have no objection to others proposing modifications to the Oath of Allegiance that we use today. I like the present Oath. It has strength and clarity. I have seen in the eyes of new Americans what it means to them. But perhaps ways can be found to make it even stronger. Still, let's make sure any changes have the support of the people as represented by Congress. The Oath of Allegiance is a statement of the commitments required of new citizens. Current citizens, through their elected representatives, ought to have a say as to what those commitments are. That's a lesson in democracy. A legally binding statement on American citizenship ought to reflect American values, including democracy. As we remember the sobering events of September 11th, we are also reminded how the country came together as one nation in response to those events. Today more than at any time in a generation, we understand and value what it means to be an American. We ought to protect in law the great statements of our citizenship, such as the Oath of Allegiance. And if it should ever be revised, it should be done in an open and democratic manner. The people should have a chance to make their views known. Congress should vote. That's the American Way.