Why keep immigrants from being president?

Foreign-born citizens deserve the right to run

August 17, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

While Republicans beat the drums of demagoguery with an attack on birthright citizenship designed to stoke anti-immigrant fervor in an election year, I'd like to suggest they shift focus back to another part of the Constitution that really needs to go: the requirement that the president be born in the United States.

You can Google it, my fellow Americans: Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 says you can't run for the White House unless you were born here.

Seven years ago, Orrin Hatch, the sartorially splendid Republican senator of Utah, proposed an amendment to allow foreign-born Americans who have been citizens for at least two decades to run for president. Hearings were held, but the proposal failed to reach the Senate floor for debate.

Senator Hatch made his pitch shortly after Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor of California; it became known as the Arnold bill. The connection to The Terminator was unfortunate. It looked as if his Republican ally had proposed the amendment just so the actor-turned-governor could one day run for president, and people dismissed the idea.

It's too bad. Senator Hatch was right to address the question, despite the daunting challenge presented in amending the Constitution.

In the 21st century, the requirement that only "native born" Americans can run for president or vice president is archaic, anachronistic, myopic, xenophobic and downright unpatriotic. The original idea, apparently approved without debate by the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was to ensure that no one with allegiance to some foreign potentate would undo the revolution of 1776.

Understandable, but I think we're over that now. I mean, we have a well-armed militia (Second Amendment) to guarantee that no commie/socialist Manchurian candidate is going to emerge, hold up the Queen of Hearts on national television and brainwash us all into swearing allegiance to Kim Jong-Il.

We also have this wonderful thing called elections, where citizens get to vote, and if a candidate for president happened to have been born in another country and you don't want to vote for him for that reason, that remains your right.

So why, a third of the way into America's third century, do we continue to preclude so many potentially great leaders from running for office because they happen to have been born somewhere else?

I have spoken to plenty of naturalized citizens over the years and have found them to be far more patriotic than a lot of "native born" Americans.

We have been at this "land of the free/home of the brave" thing for 234 years now. The United States filled up with foreigners, and, to the great dismay of the bigots and birthers, we continue to do so. While some people come here to pick lettuce, many others come to be educated and to teach, to start businesses, to conduct research and to contribute to the economy.

That story has been lost in all the demagoguery over undocumented workers.

"If the topic of immigration incites emotional responses and heated conversations in America today, that may be because many people hear 'immigrant' and think of illegal immigrants flouting American laws," says Richard Herman, a consultant to businesses owned by immigrants and co-author of a book on the subject. "Meanwhile, a large, legal community of immigrants waits for attention."

Herman's book, "Immigrant, Inc.," written with Robert L. Smith, lists an immigrant all-star team: Sergey Brin, a founder of Google, who emigrated from Russia as a child and graduated from the University of Maryland; Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and venture capitalist, born in India; Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and philanthropist, born in France to Iranian immigrants; Andrew Grove, a founder of Intel, who emigrated from Hungary; Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo, who came to the U.S. from Taiwan as a teenager; Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and developer of the Tesla electric car, a native of South Africa.

"The new immigrants are creating jobs now and designing the American jobs of the future," write Messrs. Herman and Smith. "In the great race called the global economy, they are the nation's competitive advantage."

There are millions of talented immigrants all across the fruited plain, in science and technology, in the arts, in medicine, in sports. If they become citizens, if they live here and contribute to the society and want to become leaders in government, why would we box them out?

Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 — time to hit the delete key.

Dan Rodricks' columns appear each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is host of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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