Another election, another birther conspiracy. This time, it’s Democratic Vice Presidential candidate California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris whose eligibility for the position is being questioned. Harris “is a natural-born U.S. citizen who is eligible to serve as president,” the Associated Press helpfully reminded Americans who might be wondering whether the senator, whose parents hail from India and Jamaica, was born in the United States.
But the reason this question periodically pops up in the first place—Barack Obama, John McCain, and many other candidates who either had immigrant parents or who were born abroad have faced similar controversies—is because the Constitution has a provision barring anyone who wasn’t a natural-born U.S. citizen from becoming president. (The vice presidential candidate must meet the same eligibility criteria. Those who are born to American parents outside of the United States usually qualify as natural-born citizens.)
A country in the midst of a pandemic and a devastating economic downturn faces more urgent challenges. And updating the Constitution is an arduous process, requiring the approval of two-third of legislators in both houses of congress as well as a supermajority of state legislatures (or a constitutional convention, something that has never been called in the country’s history). But though updating this archaic feature of our founding document should hardly the highest priority, it would be the right thing to do.
The natural-born citizen clause of the Constitution is discriminatory, plain and simple. When it comes to who is allowed to run for the highest office in the land, there should be no distinction between American citizens. Naturalized citizens are not less American than people who were born here.
It’s understandable that the Founding Fathers were worried about loyalty in a young republic composed of a fragile alliance of former colonies. But American identity is far more consolidated now than it was then. Most of us no longer think of ourselves as the descendants of our ancestral nations. We identify as Americans, first and foremost.
Immigrants who became naturalized citizens have now served at virtually every level of government except the presidency. They have been Members of Congress, like Washington’s Pramilya Jayapal and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, and cabinet secretaries, like Elaine Chao and Madeline Albright. Entire states have been run by people who migrated to the United States; Hollywood action star and Austrian immigrant Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was the Governor of California for two terms (and inspired an abortive attempt to provide all citizens an “equal opportunity to govern,” proposed by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, in 2003).
There is also plenty of international precedent for such a change. France, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom all allow naturalized citizens to lead their nations. Julia Gillard, who served as the Prime Minister of Australia from 2010 to 2013, was born in Wales.
Some may object that allowing someone born abroad to become our leader would raise conflicts of interest if the person holds citizenship in more than one country. To assuage that concern, there’s a simple fix: require dual citizens who seek the presidency to renounce their citizenship to the other country.
And if you’re worried about someone moving to the United States solely for the purpose of taking control of our government, breathe easy. The Constitution already requires anyone who seeks the presidency to have been a resident in the United States for 14 years.
The natural-born citizen requirement sends the message that someone born in the United States is inherently more capable of being president than someone who moved to the country as a child from Peru, China, or Afghanistan. But fitness for the presidency should be up to the American people to judge. And a simple fix would give all American citizens the right to make up their own minds about who is most suitable for the job.
Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist and co-host of the YouTube show The Backchannel. He has worked for UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress.