The field of candidates kicking-off their campaigns for the 2020 presidential election continues to grow. Despite its diversity, one group of American citizens is, as always, prevented from joining the field: immigrants who have become US citizens, commonly known as naturalised citizens. This is because the US Constitution stipulates that only “natural born” citizens, usually interpreted to mean those born on American soil, or, less conclusively, those born to at least one American parent, are eligible to be president.
Although this requirement may seem innocuously administrative, given the improbability of anyone seeking the presidency, it excludes over 20 million citizens from eligibility to the highest office in the land. More, it implicitly suggests that these naturalised citizens cannot be trusted with the presidency. Small wonder that President Donald Trump’s pre-presidency promotion of “birtherism”, the false allegation that former President Barack Obama was not born in America, provided early traction to his anti-immigrant-fuelled populist rise.
Beyond these consequences, the constitutional requirement itself is problematic. It is outdated, misused and raises legal discrimination concerns – all grounds for getting rid of it.
The relevant clause in Article II of the Constitution states that “No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of the President.” Although the 18th century framers of the Constitution made exceptions by allowing the foreign-born among them to be eligible for the presidency – Martin Van Buren, America’s eighth president, was the first to be born a citizen of the United States after independence; his predecessors were born when the states were still colonies – they were suspicious of newcomers.
Today, the distinction between newcomer and native is less relevant, especially as the relationship between citizen and state is being altered by the ease and speed of transportation and communication. Americans, both natural born or naturalised, can possess strong bonds with other countries as they can have multiple passports, international business interests and even foreign family relations.
While being born to American parents or growing up in America is likely to foster affinity for the country, the notion that one’s loyalty can presumptively be linked to the territory of one’s birth is antiquated. There is a whole cottage-industry of “birth tourism” for pregnant women who want to travel to America to give birth so that their children can be American citizens. If someone can be eligible for the presidency on the basis of being serendipitously born on US soil – an event which does not automatically instil loyalty to America – why should there be any reason to deny the same right to those who become citizens by their own choice?
Besides being obsolete, some nativists today even use the natural born clause in a way unintended by the Constitution’s framers. These nativists argue that naturalised citizens should be denied presidential eligibility because the majority of these current newcomers are from non-Western countries, with values that are inconsistent with the Western values that helped create America. Certainly, the Constitution’s Framers were British subjects and European values did shape America. But the Framers were not concerned about protecting European culture and values. If anything, they were concerned about preserving their newly created democratic political order from people who were culturally much like themselves, save for their political loyalties to Europe’s rulers.
The natural born clause also raises concerns under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, added over 80 years after the Constitution’s framing, which guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” By treating naturalised and natural born citizens unequally, it signals that the former is a lesser and probationary version of the latter. This in turn buttresses other forms of discrimination. For instance, naturalised citizens, unlike natural born citizens, can be involuntarily stripped off their citizenship. This has recently been demonstrated by the Trump administration’s establishment of the US Citizens and Immigration Services task force, mandated with removing citizenship from those it determined to have lied on their citizenship applications.
There have been previous unsuccessful efforts to drop the natural born requirement. Notably, in 2003, recently retired Republican senator Orrin Hatch proposed the Equal Opportunity to Govern amendment, believed to be motivated by his desire to make Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born movie star and later California governor, eligible for the presidency. While Hatch’s proposal would have required naturalised citizens to be citizens for 20 years to be eligible for the presidency, it would have been a positive step. As Democrats, generally viewed as immigrant-friendly, control the US House of Representatives, they should push for such an amendment. They, as well as any Republicans who would support it, would garner the goodwill of all naturalised citizens, a potentially significant voting bloc.
In addition to striking a blow against prejudice and potentially increasing the number and variety of presidential candidates, it would further empower voters. By simply letting them decide whether their fellow citizens – regardless of whether they are naturalised or natural born – are worthy of becoming president, it would make America a more inclusive democracy, at a time when many feel it is not.
Arslan Malik, an adjunct professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, outside Washington, DC, has previously contributed to the New Statesman. He is a naturalised US citizen.