You Don’t Have to Be Born on U.S. Soil to Be a Real American

Our Moms Gave Birth Abroad, But Ted Cruz and I Are Both Natural-Born Citizens. Not That It Should Matter If Either of Us Wants to Run for President.

Go, Ted Cruz!

I am very excited that the senator from Texas is running for president, so that we can once and for all rid this country of one of its most pervasive myths: that you need to be born on U.S. soil to be a real American.

Which brings me back to the one thing I love about Ted Cruz: The man was born there, in Canada!

Admittedly, that is not why most of Cruz’s fervent backers are excited he’s in the race. Or why donors have already sent his campaign tens of millions in the three weeks since he announced he was seeking the highest office in the land. The reasons most of them are excited about Cruz’s candidacy—his aversion to compromise in politics, his antebellum Constitutional views that don’t envision much of a role for the federal government in our national life, the centrality of God in his political platform, and his disdain for any sensible immigration reform—are precisely the reasons why I would be horrified to see him actually win the race I am so glad he is running. I would be perfectly content to see any one of several Republicans in the mix elected president, or Hillary Clinton, if we could be assured we’d be signing up for more 1990s Clinton centrism. But if Ted Cruz ever became president, I’d be tempted to flee to Canada.

Which brings me back to the one thing I love about Ted Cruz: The man was born there, in Canada!

If his candidacy is taken seriously, and his qualifications aren’t challenged in any of the primary states he contests, Cruz will be joining Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the list of presidential candidates whose campaigns broke barriers for minorities in the political process—in Cruz’s case, for Americans born outside the country.

I am one such “natural-born” American born elsewhere—in Mexico—and it’s been one of my lifelong frustrations to have people question my Americanness, and be utterly ignorant about the fact that you can indeed be born a U.S. citizen outside the country, if born to an American parent. I have nothing but the utmost respect for naturalized Americans who opt to become citizens later in life, but I am not one of them—I was born clenching my blue passport.

Who cares, you might ask, if the only difference between “natural-born” and naturalized Americans—in terms of their rights—is the right to be president? That awkward phrase “natural born” is in the Constitution, listed among the other qualifications for the highest office. Listed, but not defined, which is one of the reasons for all the confusion.

The qualification made its way into the Constitution because the Founding Fathers wanted to prevent their young republic from ever being hijacked by scheming European monarchs. It’s clear from both the prevailing English common law that informed the Constitution’s legal drafting and from the first major law passed by Congress on matters of citizenship in 1790 that “natural-born” citizens included Americans born to an American father in another country. (American mothers, thankfully for me and Senator Cruz, gained the equal right to transmit U.S. citizenship to their kids by a law passed in 1934.) Various federal statutes over time have struggled to further define what it means to be a natural-born American, often requiring a certain period of residency within the United States before an American parent could be entitled to pass on U.S. citizenship to a child born outside the country.

The Obama “birther” debate illustrates the arbitrary nature of these efforts to draw lines between different classes of citizens. If Obama had actually been born outside the United States in 1961, as opposed to Hawaii, he would not have been American at birth—unlike Cruz—because the law at the time required the American parent (in his case his mother) to have resided in the U.S. for at least 10 years, at least five of them after the age of 14, for his or her baby born outside the country to be a natural-born citizen. Obama’s mother was 18 when she gave birth, meaning she would not have met this requirement in the alternate universe in which people insist, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that he was born outside the country. Today, given revisions to that law, she could have had an American child overseas under the same set of circumstances.

But the widespread mistaken belief that “natural-born” citizenship is strictly a territorial question determined by where a birth occurs was compounded by the post-Civil War passage of the 14th Amendment, which categorically stated that all individuals born in the United States are full citizens. This was meant to reverse the historical injustice of treating slaves in this country as non-citizens, not to narrow the grounds of citizenship by making birth on U.S. soil the only path to American citizenship.

But back to me, Ted Cruz, and the presidency. I certainly have no desire to be president ever (lucky for all of us), but it’s still galling to have the Constitution enshrine this exalted “natural-born” status, which makes it sound as if some of us are more “organic” than others, and distorts how so many Americans think of citizenship. So go on, Senator Cruz (but not too far!), and make everyone understand that you are as American as anyone, qualified (at least on this count) to be our leader. And don’t feel ashamed of your background—tell folks who come to your website where you were born, as opposed to just telling them, as your site currently does, where your mom was born.

Now that I have made clear that I belong in the “natural-born” club, I should add that it is an absurd club. All American citizens should share the same privileges, including the right to lead the nation. There is no legitimate reason, especially now that we can safely put the fear of scheming European dynasties to rest, that in our nation of immigrants I should somehow be more entitled to run our affairs than a naturalized citizen who opts to become American after adopting this as her country. It’s shameful that countries like Germany and France are more open to the possibility of a naturalized immigrant becoming their head of state than we are. Can’t we just trust the voters to determine whether presidential candidates are sufficiently American for them?

There is in fact a case to be made that someone like Ted Cruz, born outside the country to an exiled Cuban father and American mother, could have a greater appreciation for what’s exceptional about the United States, and a better understanding of our nation’s role in the world. And of course there is also a strong case to be made that Ted Cruz, and his decidedly unworldly policy views, proves this won’t always be the case.

I sometimes wonder if Cruz isn’t really the Stephen Colbert of politics, an exceptionally smart guy who’s studiously assumed the persona of an over-the-top conservative, catering to the lowest-common-denominator, nativist impulses of the Republican activist base, all the while knowing better. It’s hard to imagine he believes half of what he says; it’s as if as if he’s constructed a parody of a red-blooded American politician—either for kicks or to compensate for his foreignness—and is constantly astounded that he is treated seriously, even as he keeps pushing the gag. I mean, the man has famously said we should shut down the IRS and have all its laid-off agents guard our borders.

Still, he is considered a serious candidate, raising a lot of money.

All of which must lead him to the same exuberant thought shared by “natural-born” and naturalized citizens alike: America, what a country!


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