Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2004 / 16 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Denying foreigners chance at presidency is anti-American
It is the most glaring contradiction in our Constitution: a nation of
immigrants that excludes anyone who is not born in the United States from
becoming president. While long criticized, it went largely unchallenged
until Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California and his fans
discovered that he couldn't become "The Presinator" because of his Austrian
It is hardly the stuff that inspiring constitutional movements are made of,
but, then again, one takes what one can get when it comes to constitutional
The problem is found in Article II, Section 1, which limits the presidency
to "a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time
of the Adoption of this Constitution," who is at least 35 years old and has
been a U.S. resident for 14 years.
Many historians believe this rule was created by opponents of Alexander
Hamilton to keep him from being president because of his birth in the West
Indies. Though this was likely an interest of some framers, Hamilton could
have claimed eligibility since he was a citizen when the Constitution was
adopted and had been a resident for 15 years.
The main purpose of the provision appears to be simple insecurity. The
United States was a young country surrounded by foreign conspiracies real
and imagined. The concern was that a foreign-born leader could lead the
country back under English rule.
The eligibility provision was written for a different people and a different
time. It now strikes a decidedly xenophobic note in an otherwise inclusive
document. More important, the exclusion is an insult to the immigrants who
built this nation 20 million since 1907.
The "Arnold factor" has helped push this issue to the forefront, but it may
also distort the debate. This month, TV ads will start to run in favor of a
constitutional amendment. Unfortunately, the sponsors are Schwarzenegger
zealots, and the ad is framed around him.
It is doubtful that such a cult of personality will sway the needed
two-thirds of both houses of Congress or three-fourths of the states needed
to amend the Constitution. Indeed, another group has announced its own ads
opposing the "Arnold amendment." A far better argument is found in the
simple fact that the eligibility requirement is anti-American and illogical.
If applied strictly, the rule could have been used to challenge the very
founders of our nation. Technically, George Washington was not a citizen
when the Constitution was adopted because ratification was completed by the
first nine states, which did not include Virginia. Likewise, our second
president, John Adams, spent 1778-88 in Paris and other foreign capitals,
raising some question as to whether he was in residency for 14 years.
From that dubious beginning, the provision became even more curious as it
denied the nation some of our best and brightest. Consider a brief list of
More than 700 immigrants who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for
outstanding bravery in war, or any of the 60,000 immigrants currently
serving in our military in Iraq and elsewhere.
U.S. business and intellectual giants such as industrialist Andrew
Carnegie (Scotland) and economist John Kenneth Galbraith (Canada).
Past Cabinet members, including three secretaries of State: Christian
Herter (France), Henry Kissinger (Germany) and Madeleine Albright (Czech
Leading politicians, including the governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm
(Canada) and Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. (Hungary).
Given our dismal crop of homegrown candidates from the two major parties,
citizens should be struggling to expand the pool of candidates. Heck, if we
are shopping in the entertainment area, we could have picked someone who
really knows how to deliver a "girlie man" joke, such as Bob Hope (United
Kingdom), or someone who can pronounce the penultimate syllable of words,
such as Alex Trebek (Canada) of Jeopardy!
Diverse choices, indeed
If we really wanted the ultimate terminator, why an actor? Edward Teller
(Hungary) actually gave us the H-Bomb, and Enrico Fermi (Italy) showed us
how to cause chain reactions. Better yet, we had Adm. Hyman Rickover
(Russia), who built the U.S. "Nuclear Navy."
The list goes on and on. The current rule constitutes a form of reverse
Darwinism: We actually exclude those who have proved themselves, against the
greatest odds, by sheer will and intellect. Instead, we favor the inbred
progeny of the old guard, with inherited names and implied capabilities.
Current proposals would eliminate the absolute ban on foreign-born citizens
in favor of a residency requirement 20 or 35 years under two such plans.
In the end, amending the eligibility provision is an important act of
self-definition. The provision reads like a constitutional version of an
American Kennel Club certification for the purebred president. The fact is
that we are a nation of mutts with the blood of countless ethnic groups
coursing through our veins. Let's pick our presidents on merits. If you want
a pure breed, buy a dog.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George
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© 2004, Jonathan Turley