The Meaning of 'Natural Born Citizen' in Presidential Elections

Ted Cruz
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The presidential birth requirements set forth in the U.S. Constitution require anyone elected to serve in the highest office in the land to be a "natural born citizen." Many people misinterpret that specific presidential birth requirement to mean that candidates must be born on U.S. soil. Even though that is not the case, voters have never elected a president who was not born in one of the 50 U.S. states.

Straight Out of the Constitution

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."

Natural Born or Native Born?

Most Americans believe that the term "natural born Citizen" applies only to someone born on American soil. That is incorrect because citizenship is not based on geography alone; it is also based on blood. The citizenship status of the parents can determine anyone's citizenship in the U.S.

The term natural born citizen applies to the child of at least one parent who is an American citizen under the modern definition. 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.

The Constitution's use of the term natural born citizen is somewhat vague, however. 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; by being born abroad to U.S. citizen-parents; or by being born in other situations meeting legal requirements for U.S. citizenship 'at birth.'"

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.

The Congressional Research Service continues:

"Such interpretation, as evidenced by over a century of American case law, would include as natural born citizens those born in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction regardless of the citizenship status of one’s parents, or those born abroad of one or more parents who are U.S. citizens (as recognized by statute), as opposed to a person who is not a citizen by birth and is thus an “alien” required to go through the legal process of naturalization to become a U.S. citizen."

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

Questioning the Citizenship of Presidential Candidates

The issue of whether a candidate was eligible to serve as president because he was born outside the United States arose during the 2008 presidential campaign. 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 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.