The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
"Good luck with that," he said. "It'll never happen," he probably meant. Such was the response I received recently when I told a fellow member of the legal profession how attending a naturalization ceremony at the federal courthouse—hearing the gratitude in the presiding judge's speech and seeing the patriotic pride of the new American citizens—has been one of my inspirations for proposing a constitutional amendment to repeal the Natural Born Citizen Clause.
Others have been more blunt: "You're wasting your time." "Don't bother." "You really should find something better to do." "Is everything okay?"
I get it. Any amendment attempt is something of a long shot at the beginning. But these objections also miss the joy in the journey.
It just plain feels good to advocate for a constitutional amendment that affirms the equal citizenship of all American citizens. I've experienced and observed that engaging in this kind of advocacy makes people feel better about America and their fellow citizens.
Nor is this just about good feelings. Making the case for this proposed amendment can also cause people to think more highly of their fellow citizens. There turn out to be more "persuadables" on the Natural Born Citizen Clause than many people initially suppose. It's satisfying to try to get people to stop a moment and think about this constitutional provision because many people tend to end up agreeing it should be repealed.
There are hard-core nativists, too, of course. But not many. There are many more who can't be bothered one way or the other. And many also just haven't noticed how anomalous the Natural Born Citizen Clause is in the U.S. Constitution. They have no problem with our system in which naturalized citizens can serve on the Supreme Court, in the Senate and House of Representatives, on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and so on. And they are usually interested to learn that hundreds of naturalized citizens have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The best argument for repeal is not that anybody excluded by it now "deserves" to run for President. (The process seems somewhat dehumanizing, actually.) A better way of looking at it is that it makes little sense to treat a whole category of American citizens as undeserving of the opportunity to even put themselves out there to be considered for President by their fellow Americans.
As for the nativists, what would be more satisfying than taking this fight to them, and winning … with President Trump fighting on the same side as us? Melania Trump, the First Lady of the United States, is a naturalized citizen. She represents the United States of America at home and abroad. Good luck questioning her patriotism.
In thinking about Republican support for the equal American citizenship of naturalized Americans more generally, consider Secretary Elaine Chao. Her status as a naturalized citizen did not prevent President Trump from appointing her to head the Department of Transportation. Nor did it hold her back in the prior Republican Administration when President George W. Bush appointed Chao to head the Department of Labor.
Secretary Chao's husband is the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Once this amendment process really gets rolling, it will be interesting to see which Republican senators choose to advance the argument that naturalized citizens should remain categorically ineligible for President. How did things work out for nativist Don Blankenship in his West Virginia Republican Senate primary? And speaking of West Virginia, here's what President Trump said in a video address to newly naturalized citizens there last fall: "No matter where you came from, what faith you practice, this is now your country. There is no higher honor, no greater responsibility. All Americans are now your brothers and sisters. You share one American heart, one American destiny."
When people generalize about the questionable allegiance of naturalized citizens in connection with proposed repeal of the Natural Born Citizen Clause, it's helpful to turn their attention to naturalized citizens they know. I've seen a lot in the comments section of The Volokh Conspiracy over the years, for example, but not much in the way of questioning the constitutional bona fides of Eugene Volokh. When it comes to votes for President, too, any loyalty concerns will always be about the loyalty of particular individuals. And this is something voters should be able to assess for themselves.
To come back to where this post began, experience with naturalization ceremonies is also a good starting point in seeking support from elected officials. On their way to being elected or after, many officeholders have spoken at naturalization ceremonies. And whatever their stance on other immigration-related issues may be, they uniformly praise the newly naturalized for their allegiance to America. In asking our elected officials to support this proposed amendment, then, we are often simply asking them to show that they still stand behind something they have already said (and meant). In so doing, we are offering an easy way for these officials to feel good about themselves and the job they are doing. And that's a refreshing stance for us all to adopt from time to time.