“Dual Loyalties”: A Painful and Personal Note from a Naturalized American

“That’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.”

That was the response of Alexander Vindman when Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican ranking member referred to him as “Mr. Vindman. Today, Lt. Col. Vindman appeared in a public hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee in the course of the impeachment inquiry. A decorated war hero, Vindman appeared in his full dress uniform.

The retort came in the context of Nunes and the Republican Counsel’s despicable line of questioning meant to intimate a lack of loyalty to the United States on the part of Col. Vindman. They repeatedly asked Vindman about an offer from the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for Vindman to serve as its Defense Minister. The offer, which the offering Ukrainian official characterized as a joke, was summarily rejected by Col. Vindman, a war hero. Despite Vindman making this crystal clear at the very first opportunity, however, Nunes and the Republican Counsel, Stephen Castor, pushed on.

Alexander Vindman was born in Ukraine, and his family immigrated to the United States when he was three-and-a-half years old. The use of his heritage to question Vindman’s loyalty to the United States is an affront to the uniform he wears. It is an affront to his unblemished record of service to the United States, both in military and civilian capacity. It is offensive to the character of a nation that prides itself on the rule of law and freedom of speech.

But that is not all that it is. The attack on Col. Vindman because of his family heritage is part and parcel of a xenophobic current in American politics amplified by (but not, by far, initiated by) Donald Trump. Because Vindman and his family are immigrants to the United States, their allegiance to the country is seen as suspect.

That hits home.

I am an immigrant. I am an American by choice. I have taken an oath for public integrity a few times as an election worker.

But the first oath I ever took to the United States went like this:

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 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.

This oath is known as the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. Every naturalized citizen, upon becoming a citizen, takes this oath. It is also an oath administered only to those who are naturalized, not to natural-born citizens of the United States.

Every naturalized American takes an oath to support, defend, and bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, at least once. Most Americans by birth never do.

Every naturalized American raises their hand at least once to promise to perform armed and non-combatant service on behalf of the United States if required by law. Most Americans by birth never do.

Every single naturalized citizen of the United States explicitly, absolutely, willingly, and under oath renounces our allegiance or loyalty to any state, nation, or sovereign except the United States and pledge it to the United States alone. Most natural-born Americans never have to.

There are more than 22 million of us who have proudly taken this oath, and 22 million more who are eagerly awaiting their opportunity to do so.

For those of us who go through this process - one that also requires us to demonstrate a command of the English language and American government, a test that many, if not most, natural-born Americans would fail.

I can tell you that I became an American in spirit long before I became one on paper and took that oath. That oath, though, was still an occasion of joy, celebration, and reverence. I remember practicing the oath for weeks before my scheduled naturalization ceremony. I remember standing in front of the mirror, right hand raised, reciting the oath over and over until I knew it by heart. I did not want to have to be prompted in order to remember and recite it, although as is traditionally the case, the officer leading the oath did prompt it at the ceremony. But I didn’t need the prompting. I knew it. That was good enough for me.

That oath meant something to me, and when I said it, I meant every word of it. I know everyone around me did, too.

Those of us who are naturalized Americans come from every part of the world. We come from every culture, every class, every race, every experience, every ideology. Yet, what we have in common is that we, like few others, know what it means to actually renounce any and all loyalties except to the United States. We, like few others, know why we do so.

Because being an American wasn’t my birthright, I know what it is like to become an American. Because being an American wasn’t my default, I know what it is like to choose - with gratitude and without reservation - to be one. Because being an American is not the only thing I have ever known, I know why the idea of America - imperfect as we are in implementing it - is so magnetic.

So yes, it’s painful. It is painful to see members of the United States Congress - a body that represents me as much as it does anyone - refer to a naturalized citizen, war hero or not, like his loyalty is questionable. It is painful to have to watch someone who bears battle scars on behalf of America - as so many naturalized Americans and immigrants do - have to defend his patriotism. It is painful to see a man who has given his entire life to the service of our country, and who would be a hero even if he never wore the uniform, have to have his allegiance to America questioned - because one of his first oaths to America, too, was the one I took when I became an American.

Our loyalties are American. Our loyalties are to no one and to nothing but America. Loyalty to this country is in our oaths, our blood, our bones.

Nothing can change that.

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