Naturalized Citizens and the Presidency

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(White House Photo)

The U.S. Constitution requires that a candidate for president or vice president must have been born in the United States. With so many foreign-born citizens today, and particularly after Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger became the governor of California in 2003, some people believe this constitutional requirement should be changed.

In 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia wrote the U.S. Constitution. Its Article II, Section 1, established the eligibility requirements of the office of the presidency. To be president, a person must be at least 35 years old and have lived in the U.S. for at least 14 years. Importantly, the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention added a clause requiring that the president be a “natural born Citizen.” The natural-born citizen clause has been traditionally interpreted to allow only those who were born within the United States to be president. It states, “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 President…”

Where Does the Term “Natural Born Citizen” Come From?

The earliest known reference to the term “natural-born citizen” comes from John Jay, the man who would become the nation’s first chief justice. When he was secretary of foreign affairs in 1787, he wrote a letter to George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In this letter, Jay suggested that “the Commander in Chief of the American army shall not be given to nor devolve on, any but a natural born Citizen.” Jay believed that a foreign-born president was too risky for the nation.

Jay’s proposal became a qualification for anyone considering a run for the presidency. The Constitutional Convention did not debate the subject. Some did propose a stricter requirement, which would have meant that the president, vice president, senators, and representatives all would have to be natural-born citizens. The Constitution was ratified without that strict language.

One exception does allow naturalized citizens to be president, but the exception excludes anyone living today. The Constitution allows anyone who had been naturalized by the time of the Constitution’s adoption to be president. That exception is no longer relevant to any presidential candidate.

What Does “Natural-Born” Mean?

Today, there is little disagreement about what “natural born” means. Taken literally, the natural-born citizen clause refers to someone born within the borders of the United States. This has been the most accepted meaning of the term to this day. The term “natural born citizen,” however, appears nowhere in the Constitution outside of the natural-born citizen clause. It is often treated as a synonym for “citizen at birth,” but the two terms are different.

The idea of a “citizen at birth” has changed over time. Before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, a person born to immigrant parents—even on U.S. soil—was not considered a citizen at birth. The amendment changed that understanding. It states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Section 1401 of Title 8 in the U.S. Code defines what “citizen at birth” means. It says that “nationals and citizens of the United States at birth” include “a person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof….” In addition, anyone born outside the U.S., but who has at least one citizen-parent who has lived in the United States for more than five years, is also a U.S. citizen at birth. Such a person is not, however, a natural-born citizen.

Naturalized Citizens for President?

As of 2009, several immigrants to the U.S. who have become naturalized citizens hold public office. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (from Austria), Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (from Canada), and Florida Senator Mel Martinez (from Cuba) are examples. But these same naturalized citizens cannot be elected to the nation’s highest office.

Supporters of changing or eliminating the natural-born citizen clause tend to see it as an anachronism (a throw-back to a previous era). John Yinger, professor of economics and public administration at Syracuse University, challenged the clause as being simply “no longer relevant” because the “Founder Fathers included the natural-born-citizen clause so no foreign prince could buy his way into the presidency.” Beyond that, Yinger argues, the clause contradicts a basic American principle of equality. He states, “All citizens should have equal rights.”

The only way to alter the Constitution would be through the amendment process. In July 2003, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the Equal Right to Govern Amendment. It would have terminated the requirement that a person must be born in the U.S. to become president or vice president. The amendment would have allowed naturalized citizens the opportunity to serve as the head of state, provided that they had lived in the country for at least 20 years and fulfilled the other requirements. In support of this amendment, Senator Hatch spoke on the Senate floor:

Ours is a nation of immigrants. The history of the United States is replete with scores of great and patriotic Americans whose dedication to this country is beyond reproach, but who happen to have been born outside of Her borders…. More than 700 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor—our Nation’s highest decoration for valor—have been immigrants. But no matter how great their sacrifice, leadership, or love for this country, they remain ineligible to be a candidate for President. This amendment would remove this unfounded inequity.

Since the 1870s, 26 similar amendments have been proposed in Congress to change or eliminate the natural-born citizen clause; all have failed in subcommittee. Hatch’s proposal met the same fate.

The reason is that many people want to keep the clause. They argue that the founders had good reason to include it. There was widespread caution throughout the United States at the time of the Constitutional Convention about the new government becoming a hereditary monarchy. Some feared that delegates to the Convention wanted either Prince Henry of Prussia or the Frederick the Duke of York, the second son of King George III of England, to be the new monarch for America. John Jay feared a monarchy when he wrote his letter to Washington.

Today, the fear of monarchy is gone. But in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the fear of an assault from a foreign entity exists. One task of the president of the United States is to be commander in chief of its armed forces. According to Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation, naturalized citizens as president may have reservations about using the military against the country of their birth. He has warned that:

"The presidency is unique: One person makes crucial decisions, many having to do with foreign policy and national security. With a single executive, there are no checks to override the possibility of foreign intrigue or influence, or mitigate any lingering favoritism for one’s native homeland."

James Madison made a similar argument at the Constitutional Convention. He said that "[f]or the same reason that [foreign-born citizens] would be attached to their native country, our own people [would] prefer natives of this Country to them." At the same time, Madison believed that any strict requirement that legislators be natural-born citizens was "illiberal," which means unequal.

If the U.S. ever allows naturalized citizens to run for president, a constitutional amendment will have to be passed. No such amendment is on the immediate horizon.


For Discussion

  1. What are the reasons the U.S. Constitution includes the “natural-born citizen” clause? Do you agree with the clause? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think the 20-year requirement in Sen. Orrin Hatch’s “Equal Right to Govern” Amendment is fair?
  3. What does the term “a nation of immigrants” mean to you?

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