American on Purpose

Should Ted Cruz be elected president?  Heaven forbid.

But should he be permitted to run?  Sure, why not?

Now that we have successfully reached the year 2016, it is a moral certainty that we will be subjected to a Big Fat Political Controversy at least once a week between now and November 8.  This week, the issue happens to be whether Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, is constitutionally eligible to assume the highest office in the land.

As perhaps you’ve heard, Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta in 1970.  At the time, his father was a Canadian citizen by way of Cuba, while his mother was an American by way of Delaware.  The family moved to Texas when Ted was four, and he has lived there ever since.

The question:  Is that good enough to satisfy the requirement that the president be a “natural born citizen” of the United States?

As far as I’m concerned, yes, it does.  Case closed.

In general, of course, one’s personal opinion about a constitutional matter is as worthless as one’s opinion about global warming.  As Neil deGrasse Tyson would say, certain things are true whether you believe them or not.

However, this particular issue is not one of those things.  In establishing qualifications for the presidency, our founding fathers didn’t bother outlining what a “natural born citizen” actually is, effectively leaving their descendents—we, the people—to figure it out for themselves.

In point of fact, should Cruz become the GOP standard-bearer later this year, he would be the first nominee of either major party born outside the United States and its territory, meaning there is no direct precedent for him in our 227-year history of presidential elections.

As for indirect precedents, there are two:  The GOP’s 2008 candidate, John McCain, was born on a naval base near the Panama Canal, while the party’s 1964 candidate, Barry Goldwater, was born in Arizona before it officially became a state.  Although there was some controversy as to whether either of those circumstances fit the bill, lawyers and scholars ultimately decided in the affirmative, concluding that the spirit of the Constitution is surely broad enough to encompass those who—as any reasonable person would surmise—are of American descent and loyal to no country other than the United States.

To my thinking, that is the overriding principle to bear in mind:  Do the circumstances of a person’s birth and upbringing make it plain that he or she is a true blue American, not beholden to the whims and values of any other nation?

Call me crazy, but I would wager that anyone who has lived continuously in the United States since he was four and is currently serving as a U.S. senator is, for all intents and purposes, about as American as one can get.

If pressed, however, I might suggest a scenario that would make Cruz even more of an American:  That is, if he had lived in a foreign country until, say, age 40 (instead of four) and then moved to Texas and run for the U.S. Senate.

While generalizing about large groups of people is almost always a mistake, personal experience has taught me that the most patriotic Americans of all are immigrants—those who live in the United States by choice, not by accident.  The folks who are born somewhere else and, at one point or another, say to themselves, “You know what?  I think I’d like to live in America, instead.”

Those of us who were born in the U.S.A. rarely appreciate how lucky we are—how we get to reside in the greatest, freest, awesomest place in the universe without so much as filling out a form or passing a test.  How the mere fact of our parentage carries more sway than our knowledge of history, our level of civic engagement or our moral fiber.

Immigrants don’t have it so easy.  Not even close.  President Trump or not, to become a naturalized citizen, you have to work.  And work and work and wait and work and wait some more.

How arduous is the naturalization process, you ask?  Well, it took roughly two years for Christopher Hitchens to formally transition from a Briton to an American—and he was a prolific author and journalist who had lived in Washington, D.C., for more than a quarter-century prior to applying for citizenship.  One can easily imagine (or look up) the obstacles for someone who doesn’t have a publishing house and a fan following to vouch for his worthiness—not to mention someone who doesn’t speak English or who comes from a politically dodgy part of the world.

On the whole, naturalized citizens are more inherently patriotic than the “natural born” because the former truly have to mean it just to get in the front door, whereas the latter get their citizenship for free, no questions asked and regardless of merit or any other factor.  And American citizenship, once secured, is very nearly impossible to lose, which begs the question of why those who receive it automatically are given first priority when it comes to running for commander-in-chief.

Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  Shouldn’t it be we natives who must somehow prove ourselves as Real Americans?  We are constantly reminded of how pathetic native born citizens fare on the basic civics test that immigrants are required to pass.  (Quick:  Which constitutional amendment guarantees the right to a fair trial?)  Is it too much to ask that our presidential candidates know at least as much about the American way of life as, say, a lowly transplant from Uganda?

The supposed dangers of electing a foreigner to the nation’s highest office—however sensible in 1787—are fairly laughable in today’s world.  The idea that a “usurper” (that wonderful 18th century term) could successfully burrow into American society and destroy it from within—or simply curry favor with his or her country of birth—seems a bit far-fetched in a 21st century American culture that pokes into every last detail of a candidate’s past before allowing him or her within 100 miles of the Oval Office.  For Pete’s sake, Barack Obama is still subject to paranoia about his loyalties and intentions and he was born in the United States.

Are we really about to elect a bona fide Manchurian Candidate without anyone anywhere realizing it?  Far be it from me to overestimate the intelligence of the American public, but I think this just might be something we could handle.  Besides, if we couldn’t, would this really be a country worth saving?

As it stands, by maintaining the “natural born citizen” clause of the Constitution, we are every year denying the chance for millions of people to become the next great leader of the free world, for no reason except that their parents happened not to live in the U.S. (or be citizens thereof) at the time of their birth.  In such an interconnected world as this, that seems like a rather paltry rationale for dividing Americans into the worthy and the unworthy.

We should get rid of this rule once and for all.  In the meantime, let’s leave Ted Cruz alone.


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