Op-ed – No Americans Should be Second-Class Citizens

No Americans Should be Second-Class Citizens

New Initiatives to Eliminate the Natural-Born Citizen Requirement in the U.S. Constitution

John Yinger
August 3, 2004


The U.S. Constitution declares that only “natural born” citizens are eligible to be President. Because this provision denies naturalized citizens an important civil right, namely, the right to run for President, it turns them into second-class citizens. A constitutional amendment proposed by Congressman Barney Frank would extend presidential eligibility to naturalized citizens (once they have been citizens for 20 years and met other constitutional requirements) and would thereby ensure that all Americans have this important right.

The right to run for President has enormous symbolic power. Indeed, running for President is the ultimate symbol of equal opportunity; a natural born citizen does not have to be born into wealth or social position to aspire to or even to attain the nation’s most powerful and prestigious job. Naturalized citizens should be allowed to have the same aspirations.

Since the U.S. Constitution was passed, this nation has steadily expanded the coverage of constitutional rights through the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the Constitution. Eliminating the second-class citizenship of naturalized citizens would add another chapter to this long and honorable tradition. Indeed, given the symbolic importance of the Presidency, this step would make an abiding contribution to the equal-rights principle that is at the heart of the American democracy.

The Founding Founders were concerned about foreign influence on the President, and the limitation on presidential eligibility grew out of this concern. However, the Founders relied primarily on the Electoral College to restrict foreign influence, and were ambivalent about this limitation. At the Constitutional Convention, both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison warned against any provision that created second-class citizens. As Hamilton put it, “Persons in Europe of moderate fortune will be fond of coming here when they will be on a level with the first citizens.” The Founders also granted presidential eligibility to all naturalized citizens at the time the Constitution was adopted, so they obviously did not believe that naturalized citizens were inherently more likely than natural born citizens to be subject to foreign influence.

Moreover, in 1798, when the United States was quarreling with both France and Great Britain, the U.S. Senate elected a naturalized citizen with a distinguished record of service to his adopted country, John Laurance of New York, as its President Pro Tempore. Laurance had immigrated to the United States from England well before the Constitution was adopted, so he was eligible to be President. Furthermore, the law of presidential succession in effect at that time placed him right behind the vice president. The Senate, which was then dominated by men who had participated in the birth of this nation, clearly believed that a man with a distinguished record should not be disqualified for the presidency simply because he was born in another country, even a country that was at odds with the United States.

Congressman Frank’s proposed amendment does not give anyone the right to be President, it only gives them the right to run for President. The presidential election process the Founders devised has served this nation so well because it ensures that no presidential candidate will be successful without convincing a majority of the American people that he or she is not subject to subversive forces, whether foreign or domestic.

Some candidates face an extra burden to prove that they meet this condition because of events in their past that make voters suspicious. Naturalized citizens who ran for President would have to overcome suspicions associated with their foreign birth. If the voters believed that a candidate who was a naturalized citizens might be biased toward the country in which he was born, then they would not vote for him — just as they would not vote for a natural born citizen perceived to be biased toward a foreign country in which his parents were born.

In fact, being “natural born” is neither necessary nor sufficient for loyalty to this country. Millions of naturalized citizens have served this country with honor and distinction in the government, in the military, and indeed in all walks of American life. Moreover, natural born Americans have been known to turn against their country. For example, one of John Laurance’s fellow senators, a natural born citizen named William Blount, was thrown out of the Senate in 1797 for conspiring with the British. Overall, it is preposterous to think that limiting presidential eligibility to natural born citizens helps the nation’s voters to select a more loyal President.

The principle of equal rights for all citizens is one of the shining lights of our democracy. The constitutional provision that limits presidential eligibility to natural born citizens is a direct assault on this principle, and it should be revoked. Congressman Frank’s amendment accomplishes this objective and would significantly expand the rights of millions of Americans. It deserves broad, bi-partisan support.

*John Yinger teaches at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He is also the proud father of two adoptive children, one of whom, even when old enough, will not be eligible to be President, at least not under current law. This op-ed piece builds on his testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, July 24, 2000.