How The U.S. Citizenship Oath Came To Be What It Is Today If you are born in the United States, citizenship is a birthright. But if you immigrate to this country, the work of the citizenship process culminates in the reciting of an oath.
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How The U.S. Citizenship Oath Came To Be What It Is Today

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How The U.S. Citizenship Oath Came To Be What It Is Today

How The U.S. Citizenship Oath Came To Be What It Is Today

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And think about this on this Fourth of July. If you were born in the USA, citizenship is a birthright. If you immigrated to this country, the work of the citizenship process culminates in the reciting of an oath.

UNIDENTIFIED NPR EMPLOYEES, BYLINE: I 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 a citizen...

...That I will support and defend the Consti (ph)...

...Tution (ph) 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...

...And that I take this obligation freely...

...Without any mental reservation...

...Or purpose of evasion...

...So help me God.

CORNISH: The oath of citizenship read by naturalized citizens from Canada, Chile, Iran, South Korea, Taiwan, Guyana and England - all NPR employees. Thanks, guys.

Some of those 140 words are clear as a breath of freedom, some archaic as parchment. And that's because the idea of the citizenship oath is almost as old as the Constitution itself. Now, for more on that history, we're going to hear from Xiao Wang. His family came to the U.S. from China when he was 10 years old. Today, he's CEO of a company called Boundless Immigration. It helps immigrant families get through the citizenship process. We start with the earliest U.S. immigration law.

XIAO WANG: The first naturalization law was passed in 1790 and that permitted any free white person who lived in the United States for two years to petition the court to be a citizen. They had to give up allegiances to any foreign states or sovereignty. Applicants who had a previous hereditary title had to renounce that to become a citizen of the U.S.

CORNISH: Then we have this huge flux of immigrants that come to the U.S. Was there a formal oath at that point?

WANG: No, there wasn't a formal oath, which spurred the creation of a presidential commission on naturalization in 1905. Due to the high number of immigrants from all different locations spreading all over and across the U.S., by then, there was as many as 5,000 courts with naturalization jurisdiction. And each of these courts could develop its own processes for administering the oath. And so because of this proliferation and divergence of the process of how someone became a citizen, the federal government actually stepped in and actually created a specific federal agency to oversee naturalization procedures, which led us to a standard form of the oath.

CORNISH: Moving forward, there is another major shift to the oath, and that's in the early 1950s, with the Immigration Act. How does this change, and what's going on historically that spurs that change?

WANG: The backdrop during the 1950s was the threat of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. And so under that umbrella for national politics, the oath was amended to add the final couple of revisions that exist in it today. And so the first part that they were adding was around bearing arms on behalf of the United States when required. And then the second was around performing noncombatant services in the armed forces when required. And the final one was added around performing work of national importance under civilian direction. There was an intent to make it more explicit that in becoming a citizen of the United States, that you are also explicitly going to take, you know, action in defending this country when asked to.

CORNISH: You've probably listened to people recite the oath and learn the oath many times. Does it still have any emotional resonance for you? And if so, how come?

WANG: Definitely. Words matter. And when you hear people say this, each of them are doing what my parents did, which is actually give up a part of their identity - something that they grew up with, something that their family is, something that most of their family probably still are - and to shed that to start and pick up and embrace a new identity. And so when you hear people say this at the end of a journey that has lasted many years or decades, it truly is something that matters deeply to each and every one of the individuals that say it. So when you see the tears on their faces, you can't help but feel them welling up in your own.

CORNISH: Well, Xiao Wang, thank you so much for speaking with us and sharing this history and even the story of your family.

WANG: Thank you for talking to me.

CORNISH: Xiao Wang is co-founder and CEO of Boundless Immigration.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: I hereby declare on oath...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: I hereby declare on oath...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...That I absolutely and entirely...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...That I absolutely and entirely...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...Renounce and abjure...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...Renounce and abjure...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...All allegiance and fidelity...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...All allegiance and fidelity...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...To any foreign prince...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...To any foreign prince...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...Potentate...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...Potentate...

CORNISH: In fiscal year 2018 - the federal government defines years as October through September - the number of people who became U.S. citizens reached a five-year high according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...That I will support and defend...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...That I will support and defend...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...The Constitution and laws...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...The Constitution and laws...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...Of the United States of America.

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...Of the United States of America.

CORNISH: In Manassas, Va., last month, 450 people filled a huge haul and swore allegiance to the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...And that I take this obligation freely...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...And that I take this obligation freely...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...Without any mental reservation...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...Without any mental reservation...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...Or purpose of evasion...

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...Or purpose of evasion...

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: ...So help me God.

UNIDENTIFIED NATURALIZATION CANDIDATES: ...So help me God.

UNIDENTIFIED USCIS OFFICIAL: Congratulations, my fellow Americans. You did a great, great job.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: For many of these newly minted U.S. citizens, the confounding parts of the oath don't matter. They say it's worth taking.

KATARINA KELLEY: My name is Katarina Kelley (ph), and I am from Ukraine originally. I felt so moved when I was saying the words.

BILAL NADEEM: My name is Bilal Nadeem, and I'm from Pakistan. It's been great to become a citizen.

UMA YALAMANCHILI: Uma Yalamanchili (ph) - and I'm from India. When they say that you are now an American citizen, that is most important for me.

MARIA SHUTE: My name is Maria Shute (ph). I am from Peru. I'm so happy to be part of the United States now.

CARLOS PANIA: My name is Carlos Pania (ph). I'm from Colombia originally. My heart is in two parts. You know, now I'm Colombian and American.

SABA SHEIKH: My name is Saba Sheikh (ph), and I was a previous Pakistani citizen. I had tears in my eyes.

JASWINDER PAL SINGH: Jaswinder Pal Singh (ph), I am from India. It is a great transformation.

MARTA CALDERON: Marta Calderon, Costa Rica. I want to participate in the democracy and the freedom of this country.

SAMANTHA: My name is Samantha Prathikantam (ph), and I am from India. Today I'm so glad that I've become an American citizen. This is a country of opportunity, so everybody dreams for. It's a great feeling, you know, to become an American.

SOFIA: My name is Sofia (ph). I'm from Russia. Whatever I dreamed about in the United States came true - felt like I'm in the movie.

CORNISH: Newly minted citizens of the United States in Manassas, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELTON JOHN SONG, "PHILADELPHIA FREEDOM")

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