This year, 2020, is an election year in the United States. If you live in the United States, are American, or even if you fit in neither of those categories (alas, “the world” seems to be more aware of what happens in America than America is of what happens in “the world”), this is not news to you.

In 2016 we saw the election of Donald J. Trump, a businessman who operates the Trump Organization that encompasses about 500 business entities and who ran on the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”, abbreviated as MAGA. In 2020 we are seeing the re-election campaign of President Trump against Democratic nominee Joseph “Joe” Biden, who sought presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008 as well and whose political career includes service as Vice President under President Barack Obama during his two terms.

Again, this probably isn’t news to you.

In an upcoming post, I want to discuss race in the United States, but right now I want to address the issue of “natural-born citizenship” that is a requirement of someone running for United States presidency.

Article II on the United States Constitution lays out three criteria for the presidency.

  1. Be a natural-born citizen
  2. Be at least 35 years old
  3. Be a resident of the United States for at least 14 years

The requirement of natural-born citizenship was strongly advocated by such framers as John Jay, who wanted to minimize foreign influence in American politics. Considering that the American Revolution sought freedom from a foreign force (England), it makes sense that the Founding Fathers included this.

Like reasoning goes for the residency requirement.

By setting the minimum age at 35, the framers of the Constitution restricted presidential eligibility to candidates who, assumedly at that age, have attained a sufficient degree of maturity and experience.

Proving one’s age and one’s length of residence in a country is less contentious than, in the case of some, “proving” one’s natural-born citizenship. The most well-known case in my memory (and I admit that I don’t have an extensive memory since I’m not quite 21) is that of President Barack Obama. His father Barack Obama, Sr. was born in and was a citizen of Kenya, while his mother (Stanley) Ann Dunham was born in and was a citizen of the United States.

The contention surrounding President Obama was whether he was born in the United States (Hawaii) or in Kenya. If the latter, opponents deemed him ineligible for presidency, as the writer at Lakeland Times here does.

However, does this pronouncement accord with the legal understanding of natural-born citizenship? What does it mean to be a natural-born citizen?

I will preface by noting that I am a naturalized citizen of the United States, not a natural-born citizen. My birthplace is in Guangdong Province in Southern China and my birth parents were likely Chinese. Having been adopted by American parents (Mom and Baba, if you’re reading this, hello!) after the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, I automatically became a U.S. citizen following my adoption in late 2000.

Now, to the issue at hand, theorists seem to limit natural-born citizenship to those individuals born within the United States. Per the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the decision of UNITED STATES v. WONG KIM ARK (1898), this includes children born in the United States who have non-citizen parents. This part of the definition falls in line with the principle of jus soli, or “the law of the soil”, that the United States inherited from the English.

A second, lesser-known aspect of natural-born citizenship is the principle of jus sanguinis, or “the law of descent.” According to the jus sanguinis, a child is considered a natural-born citizen, despite having been born abroad, if one or both of the child’s parents are American citizens. It used to be that the father had to be the American citizen because political allegiance “passed down” from the paternal side, but several acts in the early- and mid-20th century loosened this restriction and included matrilineal line for citizenship.

In other words, the American citizenship of one or both of the parents “transfers” to the child. (If one of the parents is a foreign citizen, then the “American parent” must meet a couple of residency requirements as specified by the aforementioned acts.)

For the sake of argument (and to avoid contention with claims toward the truth or falsity of former President Obama’s divulged birth certificate), let’s say that he was born in Kenya. By jus sanguinis and semi-recent immigration and citizenship acts, his place of birth does not exclude him from natural-born citizenship.

By “extended” jus sanguinis, former President Obama is a natural-born citizen through his mother Ann, who was born in Kansas and spent her childhood within the country’s borders (and so fulfilled the residency requirement for children with a non-citizen father born abroad to become citizens).

Beyond the birtherism conspiracy surrounding former President Obama, other candidates have met citizenship scrutiny, including Republican nominee John McCain (born in the Panama Canal Zone to American citizens in 2008), Republican nominee Ted Cruz (born in Canada to an American mother and a Cuban-born father who would later become a naturalized U.S. citizen) in 2016, and current Democratic Vice President nominee Kamala Harris (born in California, U.S., to an Indian-born mother and a Jamaican-born father).