The solution to the birther debate

Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.
Ted Cruz, in blue shirt, in Little Rock Aug. 12.
By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

At the base of the Statue of Liberty are poet Emma Lazarus’ words: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

That’s a wonderful description of a country, and the current debate about which candidates are eligible to run for president is not worthy of it.

The subject has come up because the Constitution says the president must be a “natural born citizen,” a term that has never been legally defined. Donald Trump and some others are making an issue of the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban father and then moved to the United States at age 4. A suit has been filed in Texas asking the Supreme Court to rule on his eligibility.

Many say the argument is nonsense, and it probably is, but there are some constitutional scholars saying Cruz is not eligible because of what “natural born citizen” meant in English common law in the 18th century, when the Constitution was enacted.

So now the “birther” issue has returned. Yay. Going back to the 2008 campaign, we’ve just spent eight years hearing people question the citizenship of President Obama, who was born of an American mother and a Kenyan father in Hawaii, a fact that some refuse to accept despite the birth certificate (It was Photoshopped!) and the birth announcements in Hawaii newspapers. (There could have been another Barack Obama born in Hawaii that day? Mom phoned it in from Africa because she knew her baby would run for president 47 years later?)

Obama and Cruz are not the only candidates whose American-ness has been doubted. A lawsuit has been filed questioning the eligibility of Sen. Marco Rubio, who was born in Miami to Cuban immigrants who were not then citizens. There were questions about Sen. John McCain’s eligibility in 2008 because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, where his military father was stationed. That would be the same John McCain who spent five-and-a-half years in a Hanoi prison because he believed accepting an early release would betray his father, his fellow prisoners and his country.

All of this is occurring because of three words in the Constitution that no longer need to be there. Someone is less American because they or their parents long ago chose to come here rather than by chance were born here? That’s inconsistent with the ideals of a nation founded by immigrants.

My solution would require a constitutional amendment, which means it won’t happen, but you’ve already read this far, so here goes: The president must have been a citizen for 35 years, regardless of birthplace. That would equal the current minimum age requirement. A 35-year-old born in this country has been a citizen that long, so why not ask the same, and no more, of those who are Americans by choice? Fair enough?

That leaves open, of course, the possibility that a foreign-born immigrant could be elected president while holding a secret allegiance to his or her home country (as if domestically born Americans’ motives are always unquestionable). To prevent that from happening, the system, and the voters, would just have to run these candidates through the wringer, as happens with other candidates. If John McCain’s American-ness can be questioned, anyone’s can.

Under the Constitution, a habitual liar or a complete dummy born in Seattle is eligible to be president, but an ideal candidate born a ferry ride away in Vancouver to Canadian parents is not – even if brought to America as an infant. It would be illegal for businesses to disqualify their best CEO candidates that way. And dumb.

Immigrants choose to come here – often at great sacrifice. They learn the language, excel academically, serve in the military, and pass a citizenship test that would stump most domestically born citizens. They take an oath to renounce their homelands and pledge loyalty to the United States. When they do, they should be fully American, with no asterisk or “yes, but.”

In other words, they have walked through Emma Lazarus’ golden door. We could do worse than electing a president who once yearned to breathe free.

2 thoughts on “The solution to the birther debate

  1. Steve, I think you’re being way too restrictive. Why not say that 5 years of citizenship is all that is required? You’re so right in saying that the vast majority of immigrants who apply for citizenship in the U.S. way outshine many native born citizens. We have millions of native borns who don’t vote, don’t contribute very much to our society, and are a general drain on everyone else. I say let’s let the serious minded lead us. If there seem to be flaws in a candidate’s suitability, I’ll bet the voters can sort that out.

  2. Hi, Sandy. Thirty-five seemed like something that could get passed. I’d want to make sure they were here for a while. Five years seems a little quick. I don’t want someone to just buy the election.

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