When I was in primary and secondary school in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, one thing was made crystal clear in American History class time and time again.
It is this: a natural-born citizen of the United States is the child of two American citizens at the time of his (her) birth.
Most Americans who are over the age of 50 today understand that definition of natural-born citizenship.
We were always told that natural-born status was necessary for Presidents and Vice Presidents of the United States.
No one ever questioned this until the 2008 race for the presidency.
Since then, all manner of information has been circulating about what constitutes natural-born.
The traditional definition of natural-born appears to have come from the case of Minor v Happersett, a Supreme Court case from 1874 concerning Mrs Virginia Minor who sued Mr Happersett, a registrar of voters, because he would not allow her to vote in the State of Missouri. He was operating according to the law as only men could vote at that time. Italics mine below from the decision on what constitutes a citizen:
Additions might always be made to the citizenship of the United States in two ways: first, by birth, and second, by naturalization. This is apparent from the Constitution itself, for it provides [Footnote 6] that
“No person except a natural-born citizen or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution shall be eligible to the office of President, [Footnote 7]”
and that Congress shall have power “to establish a uniform rule of naturalization.” Thus, new citizens may be born or they may be created by naturalization.
The Constitution does not in words say who shall be natural-born citizens. Resort must be had elsewhere to ascertain that. At common law, with the nomenclature of which the framers of the Constitution were familiar, it was never doubted that all children born in a country of parents who were its citizens became themselves, upon their birth, citizens also. These were natives or natural-born citizens, as distinguished from aliens or foreigners. Some authorities go further and include as citizens children born within the jurisdiction without reference to the citizenship of their
parents. As to this class there have been doubts, but never as to the first. For the purposes of this case, it is not necessary to solve these doubts. It is sufficient for everything we have now to consider that all children born of citizen parents within the jurisdiction are themselves citizens. The words “all children” are certainly as comprehensive, when used in this connection, as “all persons,” and if females are included in the last, they must be in the first. That they are included in the last is not denied. In fact, the whole argument of the plaintiffs proceeds upon that idea.
Sometime after 2008, Americans read that Chester Arthur was not a natural-born citizen and should never have been the 21st President (1871-1878). Although Arthur’s father was born in County Antrim, if he were naturalised by the time of his son’s birth, his son was a natural-born citizen. His mother was born in Vermont.
A century later, a question arose over whether Vice President Spiro Agnew (1969-1973) was a natural-born citizen. Like Chester Arthur, Agnew’s mother was American, born in Virginia. His father, however, was born in Greece. If he were naturalised at the time of Spiro’s birth, then Spiro was a natural-born citizen. I remember the controversy at the time, but it soon died down. As I recall, he produced the necessary paperwork regarding his father’s status.
It appears that, by the time 2008 rolled around, the Democratic Party went back to the original 1790 definition of American citizenship for their candidate, implying that as long as his mother was a natural-born American citizen, he was, too. His father’s status was irrelevant.
That same year, a bi-partisan legal review and a unanimous but non-binding Senate resolution declared that the Republican Party candidate was a natural-born citizen even though he was born in Panama, where his father was stationed at the time with the US Navy. It is unclear why exactly this was necessary as both of John McCain’s parents were born in the United States. However, some law professors said — and still maintain — that a natural-born citizen must be born on US soil.
Yet, that was not what we were taught in school. The first question from pupils and students was always about children born on military bases or to a civilian family living overseas. Teachers told us that they, too, were natural-born provided their parents were American citizens at the time. (Parents in these situations need to fill out certain forms for their children’s birth certificates.)
Now it’s all mixed up, and the natural-born citizen clause is throwing up a lot of questions that were never asked before. It is surprising to see law professors such as Mary McManamon argue that a natural-born citizen must be born on American soil and Ronald Rotunda purport that natural-born status requires only one US citizen parent.
Consequently, every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks he can run for the presidency of the United States — and they are.
This week, lawsuits in Texas and Florida have been filed questioning Ted Cruz’s and Marco Rubio’s natural-born citizenship, respectively.
Cruz’s situation looks to be the more complicated.
I was told that holding dual nationality, which Cruz did between 1970 and 2014, invalidates natural-born status permanently. A popular question often asked of Americans seeking dual nationality of a foreign country used to be, ‘Would you ever run for President of the United States?’ The implication is that, if the answer is yes, don’t apply for citizenship of Canada, the UK, France or wherever. Furthermore, relinquishing the second nationality does not restore natural-born status. It’s gone.
Also, Cruz’s father — a Cuban, then a Canadian — didn’t become a US citizen until 2005.
In Rubio‘s case, neither of his Cuban parents were naturalised at his birth in 1971. They did not become US citizens until 1975.
Cruz accused Donald Trump of not being natural-born because his mother was born in Scotland. However, that is a spurious accusation, because she was naturalised on March 10, 1942. The Donald was born four years later on June 14, 1946. Trump’s father Fred was born in New York, which makes the billionaire a natural-born citizen.
Many will ask, ‘So what?’ However, the Founding Fathers and their immediate successors were intent on ensuring that whoever was going to lead the Great Republic would have no foreign ties or allegiances, even though the earliest presidents were not born of two US citizens. They were thinking of a threat from Britain. By the time I was in school, this natural-born concept was explained in terms of Nazi Germany: ‘What if we had had a president with ties to the Third Reich?’
This is why questions were asked in 2008 about an obscure US senator known only to his peers and the Democratic Party elite. The results of that election have changed the course of American history with regard to eligibility and citizenship status. The country has since been divided on whether natural-born means of one or two parents and whether natural-born status is conferred automatically on those born on American soil regardless of parentage.
The Democratic Party played a blinder with their communications and campaign machine.
It doesn’t matter whether a presidential candidate with questionable citizenship seems ‘nice’ or appears to be a ‘good American’, whatever that might mean. No one really knows until the candidate wins the election and assumes office.
Thinking ahead, one wonders how such lenient interpretations of citizenship will play out 20 or 30 years from now.
It’s also an issue European countries will need to consider sooner rather than later.