By Matthew Pennekamp
The well-worn cliché, looming large throughout any high school recitation of Jay Gatz’s hollow exploits, varies, but goes something to the tune of this: “No matter who you are, or where you come from, you can make it if you try.” This fine line, in spite of its bloated history (and which I did President Obama the honor of pilfering verbatim from his last ever campaign speech in Des Moines), is surely an impetus behind the summer’s updraft of Central American migrants; while America’s promise might be spurious, it wins out over the prospect of imminent death. Conservatism’s classic cantata can usually be trusted to add the lyric “…and if you work hard.” But not even the most industrious newcomer can hope to crack the final ceiling, constructed not of glass but rather constitutional concrete.
It shouldn’t be news to anybody that our governing charter contains, in Article Two, Section One, the requirement of natural born citizenry among those who might inhabit the highest office to which any American can ascend. Ironclad though this may seem, there is a bit more nuance to it than meets the eye. For example, the original 1787-crafted document exempts any foreign-born fellow citizens already Americans at the time of ratification from the ban. Presidential candidates born abroad to military, diplomatic, or even missionary parents – think John McCain or George Romney (sound familiar?) – have never been seriously contested in their right to run. Attempts were even made by Republican lawmakers to tweak the rules to get some of their best players off the bench – Doctor Kissinger and Gov. Schwarzenegger, respectively.
What does this tell us about a requirement that, in my view, is quite antiquated? Some proponents claim that it’s essential to keep our highest perch as a vestigial preserve for only the truly Americanized. Yet the Teutonic tenors of Henry and Arnold were considered apt for consideration by the party more inclined to flirt with nativism, presumably because their political acumen was at the time regarded more highly than their origin stories – and rightly so (I also tend to think the argument is a wash, because any candidate with dramatic cultural deficiencies would be an electoral dead fish).
Now what of the caveat “citizens at the time of the adoption of this Constitution”? If anything, this represents the notion that citizenship is more liquid than static. Prior to Martin Van Buren’s tenure, all seven of his predecessors had been born British subjects – in other words, their loyalty had been to King and Country until, of course, it wasn’t. If one is born under a certain political system, then the Founders and Framers stand as testament to the fact that the circumstances of birth pale in comparison to the loyalty commanded by ideas and values.
Undeniably, the panacea constitutes an injustice. The adopted-from-abroad child – without accent; without foreign attachment; without any reason save his parents’ honesty to suspect transborder origins – would be denied the right of advancement. Yet more concerning is the underlying fear to which it speaks: immigrants can be trusted, surely, but wait…just don’t touch that. If we continue with the tradition of president upon president proclaiming our values as “universal,” then why not entrust somebody from the slightly wider universe with their protection?
There’s a story – maybe apocryphal, maybe not – that Benjamin Franklin once told Thomas Paine, “Where liberty dwells, there is my country,” to which Paine responded, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.” I don’t know about you, but I trust those who have known a life without the freedom we take for granted – like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a refugee from both Islamism and Western sophism – to not only appreciate it in a way unknown to the native-born, but to remind us of when our own standards fall short – like Hedy Epstein, the ninety year old Holocaust survivor arrested recently for protesting the events in Ferguson.
At the end of the day, why not reward with the fullest manifestation of citizenship those who, with all things being equal, might be more American than some of those born in the land of the free and the home of the brave.