The Corner

Politics & Policy

Ted Cruz, Natural Born Citizen

Senator Ted Cruz is wise to laugh off Donald Trump’s intimation that his constitutional qualifications to serve as president may be debatable.

The suggestion is sufficiently frivolous that even Trump, who is apt to utter most anything that pops into his head, stops short of claiming that Cruz is not a “natural born citizen,” the Constitution’s requirement. Trump is merely saying that because Cruz was born in Canada (of an American citizen mother and a Cuban father who had been a long-time legal resident of the United States), some political opponents might file lawsuits that could spur years of litigation over Cruz’s eligibility.

The answer to that “problem” is: So what? Top government officials get sued all the time. It comes with the territory and has no impact on the performance of their duties. Indeed, dozens of lawsuits have been brought seeking to challenge President Obama’s eligibility. They have been litigated for years and have neither distracted him nor created public doubt about his legitimacy. In fact, most of them are peremptorily dismissed.

On substance, Trump’s self-serving suggestion about his rival is specious. (Disclosure: I support Cruz.)

A “natural born citizen” is a person who has citizenship status at birth rather than as a result of a legal naturalization process after birth. As I explained in Faithless Execution (in connection with the term “high crimes and misdemeanors”), the meaning of many terms of art used in the Constitution was informed by British law, with which the framers were intimately familiar. “Natural born citizen” is no exception.

In a 2015 Harvard Law Review article, “On the Meaning of ‘Natural Born Citizen,” Neal Katyal and Paul Clement (former Solicitors-General in, respectively, the Obama and George W. Bush admininistrations), explain that British law explicitly used the term “natural born” to describe children born outside the British empire to parents who were subjects of the Crown. Such children were deemed British by birth, “Subjects … to all Intents, Constructions and Purposes whatsoever.”

The Constitution’s invocation of “natural born citizen” incorporates this principle of citizenship derived from parentage. That this is the original meaning is obvious from the Naturalization Act of 1790. It was enacted by the first Congress, which included several of the framers, and signed into law by President George Washington, who had presided over the constitutional convention. The Act provided that children born outside the United States to American citizens were “natural born” U.S. citizens at birth, “Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.”

As we shall see presently, Congress later changed the law, making it easier for one American-citizen parent to pass birthright citizenship to his or her child, regardless of whether the non-American parent ever resided in the United States. But even if the more demanding 1790 law had remained in effect, Cruz would still be a natural born citizen. His mother, Eleanor Elizabeth Darragh Wilson, is an American citizen born in Delaware; his native-Cuban father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, was a legal resident of the U.S. for many years before Ted was born. (Rafael came to the U.S. on a student visa in 1957, attended the University of Texas, and received political asylum and obtained a green card once the visa expired. He ultimately became a naturalized American citizen in 2005.)

As Katyal and Clement observe, changes in the law after 1790 clarified that children born of a single American-citizen parent outside the United States are natural born American citizens “subject to certain residency requirements.” Those residency requirements have changed over time.

Under the law in effect when Cruz was born in 1970 (i.e., statutes applying to people born between 1952 and 1986), the requirement was that, at the time of birth, the American citizen parent had to have resided in the U.S. for ten years, including five years after the age of fourteen. Cruz’s mother, Eleanor, easily met that requirement: she was in her mid-thirties when Ted was born and had spent most of her life in the U.S., including graduating from Rice University with a math degree that led to employment in Houston as a computer programmer at Shell Oil.

As Katyal and Clement point out, there is nothing new in this principle that presidential eligibility is derived from parental citizenship. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 candidate, was born in the Panama Canal Zone at a time when there were questions about its sovereign status. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964, was born in Arizona before it became a state, and George Romney, who unsuccessfully sought the same party’s nomination in 1968, was born in Mexico. In each instance, the candidate was a natural born citizen by virtue of parentage, so his eligibility was not open to credible dispute.

So The Donald needn’t fear. Like President Obama, President Cruz would spend more time working on which turkeys to pardon on Thanksgiving than on frivolous legal challenges to his eligibility. Ted Cruz is a natural born U.S. citizen in accordance with (a) the original understanding of that term, (b) the first Congress’s more demanding standard that took both parents into account, and (c) the more lax statutory standard that actually applied when he was born, under which birthright citizenship is derived from a single American-citizen parent.


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