Don’t be a Ted Cruz birther: Liberals should reject the xenophobia behind “natural born” citizenship

The left's giddy schadenfreude over Cruz's eligibility only legitimizes Donald Trump's brand of knee-jerk hate

Published January 24, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

Ted Cruz (AP/Matt Rourke)
Ted Cruz (AP/Matt Rourke)

The debate about whether Ted Cruz is a “natural born citizen” rages on, seemingly in spite of itself. The candidate himself has attempted to dismiss questions about his eligibility as trivial. During the most recent Republican debate, Fox News' Neil Cavuto asked Cruz whether his Canadian birth might disqualify him from the presidency on constitutional grounds. Cruz seemed unfazed. “Well, Neil, I am glad we are focused on the important topics of the evening,” he responded to laughter and applause.

Cruz went on to argue that because he is the child of a U.S. citizen, he qualifies as natural born, and claimed that legal scholarship was firmly on his side. Donald Trump, who is largely responsible for the attention being drawn to the issue, cited Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe as a prominent dissenter. Yet even Trump seemed aware that his gripes came off as childish and petty. “This isn't me saying it. I don't care. I think I'm going to win fair and square,” he said. “The fact is there's a big overhang. There's a big question on your head. And you can't do that to the party.” And what is Donald Trump if not a self-sacrificing, humble servant to the best interests of the Republican Party?

Trump's characterization of Tribe's argument was, unsurprisingly, overly simplistic. Contrary to his insistence, Tribe does not argue that the natural born clause of the Constitution renders Cruz ineligible, but rather uses the issue to draw attention to the absurdity of Cruz's judicial philosophy. “The kind of judge Cruz says he admires and would appoint to the Supreme Court is an 'originalist,'” Tribe writes in the Boston Globe, “one who claims to be bound by the narrowly historical meaning of the Constitution’s terms at the time of their adoption. To his kind of judge, Cruz ironically wouldn’t be eligible, because the legal principles that prevailed in the 1780s and ’90s required that someone actually be born on US soil to be a 'natural born' citizen.”

Tribe goes on to advocate for an entirely different approach. “The kind of judge I admire and Cruz abhors is a 'living constitutionalist,' one who believes that the Constitution’s meaning evolves with the perceived needs of the time and longstanding practice,” he writes. “To that kind of judge, Cruz would be eligible to serve because it no longer makes sense to be bound by the narrow historical definition that would disqualify him.”

The widespread reluctance to take up this cause raises the question of whether the natural born citizen requirement is, itself, outdated. The ambiguity of the term, the fact that its definition remains unsettled even among legal scholars, only serves to bolster the position that the rule is arcane. According to Tribe, the “narrow definition” of what deemed one a “natural born citizen” was born out of “18th-century fears of a tyrannical takeover of our nation by someone loyal to a foreign power — fears that no longer make sense.”

Yet it is unclear why these fears are, categorically, more reasonable as they pertain to, say, a naturalized citizen whose family moved to the United States when she was an infant. Or one who came to this country as a young student, with the hopes of providing his natural born citizen children with opportunities he never had. I don't deny that broadening the field of eligible candidates for the presidency would raise complicated questions about cultural assimilation and, perhaps, loyalty. But such questions ought to be settled by the democratic process, by an electorate that determines who has the best interests of party and country at heart, rather than by a technicality that relies upon accident of birth.

As it stands, the natural born citizen rule is a vacuum for valuable time and resources. It also, far more dangerously, upholds obsolete notions about what makes one fully American, and whether an immigrant can ever integrate completely into a society or should always be perceived as a latent threat. Which is really how this nonsense started, isn't it? Trump rose to national political prominence in part by raising questions about Barack Obama's eligibility, perpetuating a fiction that the president was born abroad. But this myth caught hold precisely because of an underlying xenophobia in a segment of the population that found the notion of a dark-skinned president with a foreign-sounding name to be alienating, not inspiring.

Birtherism's ugly history should caution liberals against using it as a punch line. Yet a week before the Republican debate, White House press secretary Josh Earnest giddily egged Trump on. "It would be quite ironic if after seven or eight years of drama around the president's birth certificate, if Republican primary voters were to choose Sen. Cruz as their nominee, somebody who actually wasn't born in the United States and who only eight months ago renounced his Canadian citizenship," Earnest said.

The irony eludes me. Trump was the one fanning birther flames years ago, and seems willing, if not eager, to continue harping on a similar issue today. Meanwhile, he is decidedly eager to make the xenophobia and racism at the crux of the '11 birther debates a prominent part of his campaign. Cruz, to my knowledge, never jumped on the birther bandwagon. A bandwagon that is, admittedly, less likely to welcome a candidate with a last name like “Cruz.” The primary voters who were most likely to doubt Obama's birthplace seem most likely to continue to support Trump's candidacy today. The party is not a monolith.

Yet Earnest was appealing to something uglier, and seemed to earnestly imply that Cruz's loyalty is a matter of grave national concern. Progressive media outlets have taken a similar stance. After Cruz ranted about problematic “New York values” during the debate, Trump responded by citing the fortitude and strength of the city's residents in the wake of 9/11. The next day, the New York Daily News depicted the Statue of Liberty raising her middle finger. “Hey, Cruz: You don't like N.Y. Values? Go back to Canada!” the cover read. Because nothing screams progressive values quite like Lady Liberty flipping off an immigrant and telling him to go home.

Reveling in the demise of the right might be smart politics, but it is cynical politics as well. This kind of schadenfreude is precisely what led to the rise of Trump, a Republican nominee who would almost certainly guarantee a Democratic win, but who has just as certainly made life harder for minorities in this country by legitimizing and spreading dangerous and hateful views. Ted Cruz is just as entitled to his abhorrent beliefs as someone who was born a few kilometers southward, and to imply otherwise is intolerant and disgusting. And Trump, born and raised in New York City, is an awful spokesperson for its values. Those values attribute the city's fortitude and strength to its diversity, to an ever-changing culture that grows and evolves and learns from its ever-changing citizenry. What a wonderful model for the nation.

By Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Presidential Election Birtherism Birthers Citizenship Donald Trump Ted Cruz Xenophobia