The recent appointment of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris as former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate has again brought to the forefront arguments around the Constitutional requirement that the President, and therefore the Vice-President, must be a “natural born citizen.” Unfortunately, this is often used as an excuse to oppose a candidate on nonsensical grounds just because a person doesn’t like the particular candidate. The fact is the Constitution and federal law are both clear on the subject, but it seems that every so often it needs to be addressed. I thought this would be a good opportunity to review the most relevant case that ends up being cited by people challenging a candidate being a “natural born citizen,” which is the 1898 case U.S. v. Wong KimArk.

Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States from immigrant resident parents who were still citizens of China. He grew up and lived in the United States his whole life, but made two trips to China to visit relatives for a few months at a time, and he had the proper visas and a U.S. passport. When he tried to re-enter the U.S. the second time, he was denied entry because customs claimed he wasn’t a citizen despite being born in the U.S. (It’s important to remember that the 1890s was a time filled with rampant racism against Asians and specifically people of Chinese descent.) The arguments made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court was clear on how a natural born citizen was defined by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It begins with “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” This makes it abundantly clear that if you were born in the United States, then you are a natural born citizen. In addition, the case also made clear that children of U.S. Citizens born abroad are also natural born citizens. So how is this still an issue?

It’s still an issue because there are still people opposing a candidate for President or Vice President who latch on to some twisted and convoluted logic to justify an untenable legal position. For example, there is an exception to citizenship being automatically vested in the children of foreign ambassadors. This has been used by people to challenge the validity of President Barack Obama’s qualifications as a natural born citizen because his father was a “foreign diplomat.” At the time of President Obama’s birth in Hawaii, his father was a Kenyan citizen who was lawfully in the United States on a student visa, and his mother was a U.S. Citizen born in Kansas. Three years after his birth, his parents divorced, and his father moved to Massachusetts to pursue another degree. Many years after that, his father took a job as an economist with Kenya’s travel ministry. People have ignored the fact that President Obama’s mother was a U.S. Citizen, ignored the fact that his father was in the U.S. on a student visa when he was born, and instead argued that President Obama was not a “natural born citizen” because his father took a non-ambassadorial post with a foreign government about a decade after President Obama was born.

What are some of the other arguments against natural born citizenship that have been invalidated by the courts?

  • A foreign country may extend citizenship to the children of its citizens born abroad, so they argue because another country would allow citizenship that the person can’t also be a natural born citizen in the U.S. This ignores the fact that every country gets to determine its own laws and status of its citizens, and the U.S. states that if you were born here that you are a citizen. My wife is the granddaughter of someone born in Ireland which makes her eligible to “claim” citizenship in Ireland, and, as her spouse, so would I if she did. I was born in Texas and my wife was born in New York. Just because Ireland says we can be citizens of its country doesn’t mean we aren’t natural born U.S. citizens.
  • Reversing that situation, children born abroad but from U.S. Citizen parents are considered natural born citizens under the Ark case. The late Senator John McCain from Arizona was born in Panama, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas was born in Canada. They both ran for President, but because they were born from U.S. Citizens and didn’t renounce their U.S. citizenship, they are natural born U.S. citizens.

In this political season, there are many reasons to vote for or against candidates for President and Vice-President, but attacking the eligibility of the candidates to even run based on twisting the Constitution and case law only detracts from legitimate debate over important issues. Senator Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California. Neither of her parents were ambassadors at the time of her birth, and she hasn’t renounced U.S. citizenship. If you want to vote for or against the Biden-Harris ticket, go ahead. But ignore the nonsense that she isn’t eligible because she isn’t a natural born citizen.

If you would like to hear more about this topic including more analysis from the U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark decision and on challenges to President Barack Obama, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Ted Cruz, and Senator John McCain, then please check out my podcast at plainenglishattorney.podbean.com.