Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Natural Born Citizens

Kamala Harris isn’t the face of America’s future but its present — and that terrifies the president’s pseudo-intellectual backers.
August 15, 2020
Natural Born Citizens
NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE - MAY 15: Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks at a campaign stop on May 15, 2019 in Nashua, New Hampshire. The Democrat and California senator is looking to differentiate herself from current front runner former Vice President Joe Biden who recently took a campaign swing through New Hampshire. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Kamala Harris was born in California—which no one disputes is part of the United States of America (yet)—but a group of what passes for legal scholars in Trump World want you to believe that she still does not meet the constitutional qualification of “natural born citizen” that would allow her to be sworn-in as vice president.The Claremont Institute’s John Eastman raised the issue in an op-ed for Newsweek Wednesday, suggesting that because Harris’s parents were foreign graduate students when she was born, her claim to be a natural born citizen is questionable.

It’s a new ploy in Eastman’s and the Claremont Institute’s fight against the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” They began years ago by challenging birthright citizenship for children born to immigrants who had entered the country illegally but have now branched out to embrace far broader restrictions that would limit citizenship exclusively to children whose parents were citizens at the time of birth.

Despite the faux scholarly arguments that Eastman and others offer, the issue is long settled. I won’t go into a full refutation, but readers who are interested can read a lengthy back-and-forth between Eastman and me on the issue here. Suffice it to say, nothing in the legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment supports the notion that Congress intended to exclude the children of non-naturalized immigrants from birthright citizenship when the amendment was adopted in 1868—despite significant nativist sentiment during that period. Nor did anti-Chinese prejudice win the argument in 1898 when the Supreme Court held that Wong Kim Ark was indeed a citizen of the United States by virtue of his birth on U.S. soil, despite being born to temporary Chinese laborers who had returned to China following passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts a decade earlier.

But even if Eastman et al. were able to launch a new challenge to birthright citizenship in the courts, the idea that the Supreme Court would revoke citizenship from the literally tens of millions of living Americans whose parents were not U.S. citizens at the time of their birth is pure fantasy. So why raise the issue now with respect to Kamala Harris? It is little more than a thinly veiled effort to redefine who counts as a real American.

Trump and his minions find the idea of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America threatening. Trump’s goon squad have already made fun of Harris’s name, with Tucker Carlson willfully refusing to pronounce Kamala correctly. Somehow Ivanka and Melania roll off the tongue for these guys, but they have more problems if the name has roots in, say, India. Trump himself has even suggested that Harris’s fellow senator Cory Booker will soon be moving people who look like Kamala into suburbs in Trump Country if the Biden-Harris ticket wins, warning they will depress property values.

But their worries are a bit late. Isabella has already become the fourth-most-popular female baby name in the U.S. over the last decade; Sofia, Leyla, Gabriella, and Aaliyah are among the top 100 names for girls, and for boys, names like Angel, Jose, Mateo, Xavier and others that suggest origins beyond our borders. And the demographics of the suburbs have already changed, with brown-skinned people now more than a third of suburban residents in the country. Already, 36 of the top 100 suburbs have minority populations of greater than 35 percent, and suburbs of Houston, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., have had majority minority populations for more than a decade.

The future that Trumpists worry about is already here. Kamala Harris is the face of America in 2020, the tawny-skinned child of immigrants. She is as American as apple pie and hot dogs, as pizza and ramen noodles, as empanadas and samosas—and there is little Donald Trump or his apologists can do about it.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is a senior fellow at the National Immigration Forum and served in the Reagan White House as director of public liaison. Her views are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization.