The U.S. Gives Special Immigration Rights to the Religious

As the immigration debate rages on in Congress this week, a recent story has come to light about a British woman's objection to a largely ignored, age-old clause contained in U.S. naturalization protocol. 

Unbeknownst to many Americans, a staple element of U.S. Department of Homeland Security immigration procedure is to require applicants to pledge to "take up arms to defend the U.S," unless prospective immigrants claim a religious exemption. This case is a reminder that naturalization procedures requires increased scrutiny.

UK woman Margaret Doughty, 64, allegedly declined to support this clause due to her deeply-held moral opposition to violence, although she does not belong to a church. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers then requested that she submit an official religious objection by June 21, or else she would be denied citizenship, raising some question about this clause and requests to expand exemptions for people holding similar beliefs. This longstanding element of U.S. naturalization process is now gaining an onslaught of scrutiny.

Before 1946, the U.S. did not accept any form of objection to the clause. Only after Supreme Court case Girouard v. United States (328 U.S. 61 (1946)) did the court overturn this procedure by voting in favor of an applicant for naturalization who refused to support the clause due to his Seventh-day Adventist beliefs, leading to an official religious exemption. Religious exemptions are required to be filed on official church letterhead. Now some are demanding this exemption criterion be expanded beyond formal religious organizations to include personal objections to violence. 

The current oath for naturalization, available here, has stood for over 220 years and does not allow for exemption from any other clause. Since America's first naturalization law of 1790, all applications for naturalization must take the Oath of Allegiance, requiring them to  uphold allegiance, support, and defense of the Constitution and U.S. laws, "against all enemies, foreign and domestic." The last change to the oath took place in 1952.

Expanding room for exemption, of course, would be a difficult and controversial task. But the case is a meaningful reminder that pacifist sentiment expands beyond church lines, and may be a legitimate concern for otherwise deserving applicants seeking citizenship. As the oath has stood untouched for over 50 years, the case is a reminder that it would be worthwhile to reconsider some of the elements of the pledge so many applicants face every day. If possible to fairly and systematically expand the clause to relate to individuals with similar deeply held concerns with violence, this could be a meaningful way to more fairly address the issue. 

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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