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Immigrants for President
An idea for Bush.

By NR’s John J. Miller, Ramesh Ponnuru
July 9, 2001 11:10 a.m.



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hen President Bush visits Ellis Island tomorrow morning, he's sure to pepper his remarks with all those happy platitudes about America being "a nation of immigrants" and so on. You won't hear much discussion of the speech afterwards because its contents probably won't warrant it.

But Bush could, if he chooses, use Ellis Island as the perfect venue to make a suggestion that would draw enormous attention, help him politically, and be a worthwhile goal for American law. He could propose amending the Constitution to permit foreign-born citizens to serve as president.

The Constitution, of course, is explicit on this point in Article II, Section 1: "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." No shadows and penumbras there; immigrants are banned from the presidency. This, in fact, is the single legal distinction made between Americans who are citizens at birth and those who gain citizenship through naturalization. In every other respect, they are the same.

One of the wonders of American culture, of course, is the spectacle of people becoming American. We call this assimilation or, less clinically, Americanization. It is a rough process that on an individual level includes successes, failures, and much in between. It also holds a special place in the public imagination most Americans can name an immigrant forebear, and a great many know immigrant ancestors as more than names. That's why politicians enjoy putting places like Ellis Island on their itineraries. That's also why Ellis Island is the perfect place to announce an effort to end the ban on immigrant presidents.

Before anybody attempts to amend the Constitution, of course, it's important to understand why it says what it does right now. Unfortunately, the prohibition against immigrant presidents was not much debated by the founders, partly because it was a late addition to the Constitution. Yet it is not difficult to guess their reasoning. They probably recognized that many European kings weren't born in the lands they ruled, and wanted to make the presidency a distinct office. They also may have believed that the country's chief elected official needed to possess an inborn sense of American culture. At a time when a newly independent United States was struggling to find its place in the world, this is understandable though it's also worth noting that the drafters included a loophole that would have permitted foreign-born people living at that time (e.g., Alexander Hamilton) to become president. So the notion was not entirely off-limits to them.

Today, it is hard to imagine American voters electing a king or queen to the White House. It is also hard to imagine them elevating a foreign-born candidate who wasn't essentially American. An immigrant president most likely would embrace America with the zeal of a convert. He would be a flag-waving patriot whose love of country exceeds that of most native-born Americans. He would also probably have been raised in the United States since early childhood. (At the very least, the president would not be fresh off the boat: The Constitution requires any president, even a native, to have lived in the United States for 14 years.)

The political case for the amendment is obvious: If the GOP wants to expand its reach among Hispanics and Asian Americans, this amendment beats capitulating on Vieques. Imagine Bush mentioning the amendment everywhere he goes; suddenly it becomes the Bush Amendment. And it operates with great symbolic power, as a kind of minor successor to the 15th Amendment (giving blacks the vote) and the 19th Amendment (women's suffrage). It becomes a tool of inclusion, more useful than 1,000 political conventions like the one in Philadelphia. Bush wins even if the amendment like most proposed amendments doesn't get enacted.

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