The Presidential Birth Requirement of Being a Natural Born Citizen

What the Constitution Says About Who Can Serve in the White House

Ted Cruz
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The presidential birth requirements in the U.S. Constitution require anyone elected to serve as U.S. president or vice president be a "natural born citizen." What that means is only those people who are U.S. citizens at birth and did not have to go through the naturalization process are eligible to serve in the highest office in the land. It does not mean that a president must have been born on U.S. soil to serve, even though there has never been a U.S. president born outside one of the 50 U.S. states.

What Natural Born Means

The confusion over presidential birth requirements centers on two terms: natural-born citizen and native-born citizen. Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution doesn't say anything about being a native-born citizen, but instead states:

"No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States."

There is no similar requirement, however, to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, in either chamber of Congress or in the president's cabinet. Some believe the provision on presidential birth requirements was an attempt to foreign dominance of U.S. government, particularly the military and the position of commander-in-chief, which had not yet been merged with presidency at the time the Constitution was being drafted.

Citizenship Status and Bloodline

Most Americans believe that the term natural born citizen applies only to someone born on American soil. That is incorrect. Citizenship is not based on geography alone; it can also be based on blood. The citizenship status of the parents can determine citizenship of a child in the United States.

The term natural born citizen applies to the child of at least one parent who is an American citizen. Children whose parents are American citizens are not required to be naturalized because they are natural born citizens. Therefore, they are eligible to serve as president, even if they are born in a foreign country.

The Constitution's use of the term natural born citizen is somewhat vague. The document does not actually define it. Most modern legal interpretations have concluded that you can be a natural born citizen without actually being born in one of the 50 United States.

The Congressional Research Service concluded in 2011:

"The weight of legal and historical authority indicates that the term 'natural born' citizen would mean a person who is entitled to U.S. citizenship 'by birth' or 'at birth,' either by being born 'in' the United States and under its jurisdiction, even those born to alien parents; The predominant legal scholarship holds that the term natural born citizen applies, quite simply, to anyone who is a U.S. citizen at birth, or by birth, and does not have to go through the naturalization process. The child of parents who are U.S. citizens, regardless of whether he or she is born abroad, fits into the category under most modern interpretations."

American case law also includes as natural born citizens those born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction regardless of the citizenship status of one’s parents.

It is important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court has not weighed in specifically on this issue.

Questioning Citizenship

The issue of natural born citizenship has come up in more than one presidential campaign.

In the 2008 presidential race Republican U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the party's presidential nominee, was the subject of lawsuits challenging his eligibility because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone, in 1936. A federal district court in California determined that McCain would qualify as a citizen “at birth.” This means that he was a natural born citizen because he was "born out of the limits and jurisdiction of the United States” to parents who were U.S. citizens at the time.

Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, a Tea Party favorite who unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination in 2016, was born in Calgary, Canada. Because his mother was a citizen of the United States, Cruz has maintained he also is a natural-born citizen of the United States. 

In the 1968 presidential campaign, Republican George Romney faced similar questions. He was born in Mexico to parents who were born in Utah before their emigration to Mexico in the 1880s. Though they were married in Mexico in 1895, both retained U.S. citizenship. "I am a natural born citizen. My parents were American citizens. I was a citizen at birth," Romney said in a written statement in his archives. Legal scholars and researchers sided with Romney at the time.

There were many conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama's place of birth. His detractors including Donald Trump, who went on to become president after Obama completed two terms, believed that he was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii. However, it wouldn't have mattered which country his mother gave birth in. She was an American citizen and that means that Obama was at birth, too. 

Time to End Presidential Birth Requirements?

Some critics of the natural born citizen requirement have called for a repeal of the provision and say its removal from American politics would render moot the racist and xenophobic debate over a candidate's place of birth.

Noah Feldman, a professor of law at Harvard University and former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter, has written that repealing the natural born citizen requirement would send a strong pro-immigration message.

"The clause hasn’t done us any identifiable good in U.S. history. No dangerous potential candidate has been headed off by being born abroad," he wrote. "But it has done a lot of harm - in the form of the birther conspiracy about Barack Obama to which Donald Trump gave life, and which hasn’t disappeared."