True Allegiance: A Hard Look at the Natural Born Citizen Requirement
Andrew Broering, Politics Contributor
During the 2016 Presidential season, one surprising issue emerged in the primary debates that ordinarily remained on the periphery. Donald Trump warned that certain rival candidates were not eligible to serve as President or Vice-President because they might not be “natural born citizens” as required in Article II of the US Constitution. There was considerable debate among the conservative base regarding the term’s meaning. The Supreme Court has yet to decide a case where defining the term is directly at issue. With scant record providing insight into what Framers at the Constitutional Convention intended the phrase to mean and little jurisprudential guidance, some primary voters were uncertain. Trump and his supporters peddled a more extreme view that the rule required Presidential candidates to have been born on American soil to parents who were both American citizens. Courts in New Jersey and Pennsylvania both later rejected this interpretation, certifying that Senator Ted Cruz was eligible despite being born in Canada to an American mother, consistent with the broader common law position. While Cruz was ultimately vindicated, Trump already benefited from the attack itself, planting a seed of doubt in the minds of some voters in critical primary states.
But the tactic was a familiar one for Trump, having been the basis for his discredited “birther” claim against President Obama years earlier. Ambiguity remains in the legal realm, yet there is at least some consensus that the Constitutional requirement bars from the Oval Office those first-generation immigrants who are born to foreign parents on foreign soil and later become naturalized American citizens (e.g. Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm). The impressive percentage of legal immigrant families prospering on their own merits through upward mobility and showing high civic engagement indicates that more will likely continue to expand their spheres of influence enough to seriously run for public office. This is partly why we can anticipate the natural born citizen issue to return in most future Presidential elections until there is either an explicit Constitutional ruling on the question or an amendment ratified clearly defining the term.
American voters have a chance to take a hard look at the rule’s original rationale and scrutinize whether it still applies with equal force today. The current theory relies on a conflict of interest logic, suggesting that a naturalized American citizen elected President will have difficulty putting the United States’ interests first when dealing with his or her former sovereign on the international stage. However, the Founders faced a more pronounced danger. The country’s position after the American Revolution was relatively weak and especially amid the Constitutional Convention, there were legitimate concerns that more aristocratic delegates sought to impose a European style monarchy as the country’s Chief Executive. Some also feared the Electoral College was vulnerable to manipulation by foreign governments.
When faced with the same question today, one can make a compelling argument that a decades- long residency and citizenship requirement adequately addresses the same concerns and without prohibiting an enormous number of otherwise qualified candidates from being considered by American voters. Political scientist Larry Sabato concludes that 20 years strikes the appropriate balance between ensuring that first generation American candidates have a record in the country that can be meaningfully vetted and the period not being excessively long. Non-native-born candidates will still likely face an uphill battle throughout the Party nomination processes. One can expect many “Manchurian Candidate” type conspiracy theories from the fake news outlet and plenty of satire material.
Further, permitting these naturalized citizens to seek the Presidency will help voters to improve our own understanding of what factors determine true loyalty to a person’s sovereign. The underlying logic for maintaining a strict natural born citizen requirement appears fairly warped when applied to over thirty thousand American military servicemen and women, implying these citizens are still at greater risk of betraying the United States’ interests merely because they immigrated here. Conservative principles place a strong value on self-reliance, no matter how humble a person’s background. Making this change serves to reinforce that people's choices, taken on their own initiative, are better signs of their commitments than the fortune of where they happened to be born. Given that native-born citizens have committed treasonous espionage for top geopolitical foes and carried out attacks on behalf of terrorist groups, presuming that native born citizens are more patriotically loyal seems monumentally misguided.
Because President Trump brought the Constitutional provision to the forefront of national discussion again, a simple tweet supporting this proposal would gain goodwill even among his most passionate critics, regardless of whether Congress took up the issue. The move would take many of his media detractors off guard. Those who are skeptical would still have to explain why prominent liberals have also failed to seriously take up this cause. It would also calm some Republican fears that alt-right influence is making the party more akin to the mid-19th century “Know-Nothing Party.” While some among the alt-right voting bloc will likely object, there is some hope that at least a plurality of Republicans and a majority of eligible voters would support this type of change.
From an optical standpoint, the move also would help repair US allies’ perception of the Trump administration in the face of controversial travel bans and plans to construct a wall along the Southern border with Mexico. There is arguably no better way to symbolically and substantively demonstrate America’s commitment to the rule of law than by rewarding legal immigration. A majority of Americans’ ancestors were at some point subject to this prohibition. But the rule rests on dubious moral and logical grounds. As such, it is a net loss to our Republic and should be discarded.
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