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A Natural for the White House

Whew, I’m in the club. Even though I was born in Mexico, I can run for the presidency if this columnist gig doesn’t work out. I called my mother over the weekend, just to make sure. Had she lived in the United States at least five years prior to my birth? Check. Were at least two of those years after she had attained the age of 14? Check. Want to send my exploratory committee its first contribution? No check.

Don’t let anyone tell you that there is something immutable about the Constitution’s concept of a “natural-born” American, which you must be in order to run for the White House. If anyone tries, refer him to Title 8 of the United States Code, Section 1401, which attempts to flesh out a definition of “natural born.” Subsection (g) opens the door to a Martinez candidacy. And, according to Subsection (c), if both my parents had been American, instead of only my mother, all I would have needed is for one of them to have resided in the U.S. for any period of time -- not five years, two of them past the 14th birthday -- prior to my birth.

Whether you are born American can be a fairly random matter, a point that gets lost in the long-overdue debate over whether to amend the Constitution to allow naturalized citizens like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to be president. If my American mother, for instance, had moved to Mexico at 15, well, I’d never be able to claim Air Force One as my own.

Citizenship overall is an arbitrary concept -- although an admittedly necessary one -- but eligibility for the presidency and vice presidency is the only meaningful right of citizenship reserved exclusively for “natural-born” Americans. This is absurd. A baby girl adopted in China by Americans and moved here before her first birthday is forever barred from the presidency, but a baby born in the United States to Chinese visitors can later become eligible for the office even if she lives in China for the first half-century of her life.

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As Times reporter Joe Matthews wrote in a front-page story last week, the founding fathers had plenty of reason to bar foreign-born presidents in the late 18th century. But unless you think the United States is still in danger of being carved up and partitioned by foreign monarchs, as Poland was in the 1700s, or that political factions in Washington may be scheming to import a German prince, we can all agree that this small-minded, nativist clause in our Constitution is outdated. Even back in 1787, the Constitution’s authors -- seven of the 39 were foreign-born -- didn’t take this requirement all that seriously. After all, they exempted themselves from it.

Alexander Hamilton was the nation’s iconic immigrant founding father, but in recent years plenty of foreign-born Americans, including former secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, have shown that naturalized citizens can be entrusted to defend the nation’s interests. Tens of thousands of foreign-born Americans are serving in Iraq. And as proponents of the constitutional change never cease to point out, Irving Berlin, who penned “God Bless America,” was an American born in Russia.

The “natural born” requirement betrays this country’s heritage and the belief that values and ideas, more than any particular chunk of real estate, define the United States. The requirement is an insult to the more than 12 million foreign-born Americans. It’s an even greater insult to all other Americans, as it deems them incapable of deciding for themselves on election day whether someone running for president is sufficiently “American.”

I am glad that Schwarzenegger’s popularity has ignited this debate. If ever he is in a position to announce his candidacy for the presidency, that will be a great day for the country, whatever you think of his politics. California Democrats, who normally can be counted on to champion immigrants and an expansive view of constitutional rights, should think twice before allowing their partisan loyalties to twist them into crazed xenophobes determined to see that day never happens.

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I am not optimistic. I don’t know what Sen. Dianne Feinstein would be saying if her state’s foreign-born movie star/governor were a Democrat, but she said in congressional hearings last fall that a “reserved right of birth” for the presidency is desirable. I may not have been born here, and I may have missed out on “The Brady Bunch” during my childhood in Mexico, but Sen. Feinstein sounds shockingly un-American to me.


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