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Debate: Foreign-born presidents in the US

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Should the US constitution be amended to allow foreign-born presidents?

Background and context

Article II, Section 1, Clause 5 of the US Constitution states that, 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. Thus, no naturalised citizen may serve as president. Those who acquire US citizenship at birth whilst abroad (e.g. those born to US servicemen abroad, whilst on an U.S. army base) are probably also considered eligible, though it is unclear. For most of the past 200 years this article of the US Constitution has been pretty uncontroversial, although it has been criticised for cutting against the idea that anybody can come to America and remake themselves as a US-citizen, with no limits to what they might achieve. In the past two years, however, the emergence of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a major political force, not just as Governor of California but throughout the USA, has sparked a debate about whether this Austrian-born citizen should be allowed to run for President. Others point to popular Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm (born in Canada), as another plausible Presidential candidate of the future, should the constitution ever be amended to allow foreign-born citizens to run. Although this debate is very US-specific, it does have wider relevance for many other countries. A parallel can be found in Cote D'Ivoire, where Alassane Ouatarra, a popular northern candidate for President in 2000, was banned from from running on the grounds that he was not Ivorian enough (it was claimed that one of his parents was foreign). This led to a crisis which contributed to the present civil war in Cote D'Ivoire.

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Argument #1

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Yes

America is a melting pot of different cultures. If the highest office were open to someone originally not from the country it would be a vivid demonstration of its meritocratic principles – of the universality of the American Dream. Anybody can achieve the very highest in America, if only they work hard enough. Being American isn’t just a racial question – it’s also an aspiration. People came from across the seas, leaving home and all they knew, because they wished to become part of the American model. There is obviously a limit to the extent to which this aspiration can be realised, as long as some jobs are kept away from newcomers, but it is also symbolic of a ceiling aimed at keeping immigrants down.

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No

It’s true that there is a melting pot. There are Hispanic Americans, black Americans. The important thing is that they are, first and foremost, American. The symbolic advantages of allowing a foreign-born person to run for the highest office are outweighed by the practical importance of the office. We need a guarantee that the primary loyalty of the President, of the most powerful person in the country, is to the USA, and not any other nation. Even if a foreign-born US-citizen feels entirely American, who knows what divided loyalties they might feel if a particular crisis involving their original homeland blew up? And even if they were not torn emotionally in such a situation, the perception that they were not 100% American could be very damaging both at home and abroad.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The restriction may rule out the best candidate. Millions of US citizens today were born elsewhere and many of these are the kind of highly committed achievers we need serving our country. After all, immigrants are almost by definition more dynamic than most, and they may also be more committed to the American dream than complacent

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No

There’s a pool of over 200 million eligible people and three of four people in each generation can ever reach the Oval Office - so the odds on there being suitably qualified candidates are pretty good. There’s room for the very best in there; you may not be getting them under the status quo, but isn’t that rather more about the party system, the need for a fortune to run, the restrictive and vitriolic nature of campaigning..?

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Argument #3

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Yes

Having knowledge of another culture could be extremely helpful in some situations. Diplomatic relations with Mexico for example, a key issue given the disparity of economic norms between the two countries and the enormous immigration flows it produces, would undoubtedly benefit from a President with Hispanic roots.

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No

This argument displays the shallowness of view that has caused the debate in the first place. It’s perfectly possible to understand a place without being from it. And again, a perception of being biased in favour or against certain other countries could be very damaging.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The rule restricts the right to stand and creates two classes of citizenship. If a foreign birthplace is really a factor that Americans think should rule a citizen out, there’s an easy way of telling – they can stand and get beaten fair and square. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for it – but don’t restrict a person’s right to stand.

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No

The right to stand is restricted all the time – on the grounds of age, for example. The presidency requires a higher age than all other state-imposed age boundaries – higher than driving, smoking, voting, copulating, standing for Congress, etc. It is marked out as different. This restriction is therefore entirely in keeping with the approach to the Presidency – requiring more from those who aspire to the office.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The rule restricts voter choice. Voters may wish to elect a person who is unable to stand. An obvious comparison should be drawn with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of the most populous state, California. Voters in their millions elected him to the highest executive position in the state. If he had not been allowed to stand, that choice would have been withheld from them.

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No

Voters might wish to elect a minor, or someone else whose qualities make them innately unsuitable. These rules exist to restrict candidates to those that are obviously suitable. Being foreign-born renders one unsuitable. Thus being excluded is not unfair.

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Argument #6

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Yes

The rule is asymmetric with other rules on race. Discriminatory rules in all other positions – CEOs of companies, the Supreme Court – stress equality, not distinction. Indeed the law requires employers in all other circumstances not to discriminate as the law overtly does here. It sends an clear signal that the very top of American society is closed to those of particular backgrounds.

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No

The Presidency is the highest office in the land and it is reasonable for society to require particular standards of those that wish to fill it. It requires someone to be unquestionably dedicated to the good of the USA – the norms of employment law can hardly be said to apply to the Presidency!

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