The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has denied that the modifications to military service requirements in the Oath of Allegiance published on July 21 flout the law, despite harsh criticism from immigration experts and members of Congress.
"Candidates for citizenship normally declare that they will ‘bear arms on behalf of the United States’ and ‘perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States’ when required by law," stated USCIS on July 21. "A candidate may be eligible to exclude these two clauses based on religious training and belief or a conscientious objection."
The new guidelines, which appear under the heading "Modifications to Oath of Allegiance for Naturalization," state that a candidate "is not required to belong to a specific church or religion, follow a particular theology or belief, or to have had religious training in order to qualify," and "may submit, but is not required to provide, an attestation from a religious or other type of organization, as well as other evidence to establish eligibility."
Immigration experts and some on Capitol Hill say that this represents a substantive change, and a bill has been introduced in Congress to roll back USCIS’s actions.
Christopher Bentley, the chief of media relations at USCIS, denies that the changes are at odds with the law, and says that the July 22 message was meant for internal use by USCIS employees.
"There are no changes, the law has been quite clear since 1952 that modifications are allowed should individuals have religious-based or conscientious objector-based objections to saying those parts of the Oath of Allegiance," said Bentley. "So that’s always been the case and people have always been allowed to in essence opt out of saying that if they have those firmly held beliefs."
Bentley said that this new guidance was not meant to be a public announcement, but rather an internal announcement to USCIS officers. Because the agency wants to be transparent as possible, Bentley says they let the public know what was in the policy manual.
"That policy manual was intended for our employees to help make sure that they’re making consistent decisions in immigration cases as opposed to informing the public of something writ large—we weren’t doing that, we were making sure that our employees understood so they could make good decisions."
Bentley says that immigrants still have to be able to document that the objection is a firmly held belief.
"You still have to be able to document, you have to be able to show, to demonstrate, that this is a firmly held belief if you’re not a member of a religious organization that would object," Bentley said. "You have to be able to show that it’s a firmly held belief, so it’s not just a whim, you can’t just say ‘I don’t want to do it.’ You have to have one of those core beliefs that indicates that this would be something in violation of that."
"So there was no change, that’s the big story is there was no change, the Oath hasn’t been modified, nothing has been eliminated, this is simply something that we’ve done to remind our employees of what the law actually said," he said.
Rep. Diane Black (R., Tenn.), who is introducing the Restore the Oath of Allegiance Act, disagrees with Bentley’s claims.
"USCIS can offer whatever explanation it wants for this unnecessary and misguided change, but here’s the simple truth: Now, for the first time, the Obama administration has declared in writing that individuals can opt out of this clause in the Oath of Allegiance without offering any form of documentation to support that request," said Black.
"By spelling out the fact that those who wish to become U.S. citizens are ‘not required to provide’ attestation for their objections, the Obama administration is in fact bending the rules and giving greater deference to those objecting."
Black announced the legislation on Thursday in response to the USCIS guidelines.
"The new guidelines from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services essentially amount to an exception for anyone who wants one. Not only is this bad policy, it also is at odds with federal law—which requires a person to show by clear and convincing evidence that they oppose reciting the clauses of the Oath that are in question."
Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies says that the rule change violates the integrity of the immigration system and lessens the meaning of citizenship.
"This rule change is yet another blow from the Obama administration to the integrity of our immigration system, which has largely succeeded over the years in part because of America’s expectation that immigrants will become Americans, and that naturalized citizens will feel a bond with their new country and let go any other allegiances," said Vaughan. "The Obama administration instead adheres to an ‘anything goes’ approach, whether it’s with respect to willingness to bear arms for America or criminal behavior of immigrants—or his disregard for the law in general. All of this profoundly degrades the meaning of citizenship."
The Oath of Allegiance has been a part of the naturalization process in the United States for more than 220 years and requires that immigrants support the Constitution, renounce allegiance to any foreign countries, and, among other things, declare that they will bear arms on behalf of the United States.