Saturday, May 3, 2008

Why the office of U.S. President should be available to all citizens

Under our current Constitution, an American citizen is an American citizen — except when it comes to the presidency.

There are American citizens who will never be able to attain the highest office in the land, even with distinguished military service, community involvement, or a track record of political achievements. The one differentiating factor that isolates these citizens from the rest is that they happened to be born in another country, to parents who were not American citizens. This means that foreign-born American citizens — whether they were born in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, China, or India — can never be President.

Nevertheless, the United States is one of the most accepting countries in the world when it comes to citizenship. Acquiring United States citizenship is a long and arduous process, but in theory it is open to all. And as many of us know, there's so much to be done and so much that could be done aside from coveting the presidency. In the political sphere, state governorships, seats in the Senate, and Supreme Court appointments are technically open to naturalized citizens. In the economic sphere, immigrants are increasingly providing the needed brainpower to develop new industries: a quarter of Silicon Valley startups were founded by entrepreneurs with a Chinese or Indian ethnic background.

Things are pretty great for the naturalized American citizen — but they could be better. There are a lot of good reasons to amend the U.S. Constitution to get rid of this last remnant of inequality, and not a single good reason to keep it as is.

Reasons to Amend

What we have now essentially delineates Americans into first- and second-class citizens. Granted, fundamental rights have been addressed thanks to the tireless work of the many who have come before us. And it's true that holding public office as a representative of the people should be viewed more as a privilege than as a right. But to lock people out of the presidency in the Constitution, for circumstances that were completely outside their control, creates an undeniable division of citizens into first- and second-class citizens. That's just the simple fact of the matter. Certain citizens get one more privilege than the others do. This distinction does not mean much to most citizens and does not impact them directly — running for President is not going to be a practical reality for the vast majority of Americans — but to be able to say, with absolute veracity, that our Constitution creates a system of first- and second-class citizens is just downright embarrassing when we claim to be the purveyors of equality and the beacon of democracy to the whole world.

What we have now does not effectively address the original concern with illicit foreign influence, and it is a blunt instrument in attempting to address this concern. The requirement for the President to be a native-born citizen was included in the Constitution during a fragile time for America, where the danger of foreign influence was very real, and whose potential consequences could have destroyed America early on. In short, it was justifiably paranoid and the drafters of the Constitution were right to include it at that time. But we have no justification for keeping it now. Voter sentiment about foreign influence and mixed allegiances presents the biggest barrier to ratification, and I'll expand on this point further in the next section. But in short, the current clause does not serve its purpose — ensuring loyalty and allegiance to the United States of America — and there are better ways of demonstrating loyalty and commitment.

Ratifying such an amendment would do much to integrate immigrants into the fabric of American society. By sending the message that immigrants, once naturalized, are truly equal in the eyes of the law by being eligible for the highest office in the land, this amendment would give them a stake in America's future. It could also lead to a representative figure.

Further Elaborations on Foreign Influence

It's completely valid to ask for a sign or indicator of loyalty to the United States. Where you're born is a blunt and ineffective instrument for doing so. If anything, let one's military service record be the testament of loyalty and dedication, not one's place of birth.

The original intention and the situations surrounding the initial amendment are not valid now. Locking a restriction into the U.S. Constitution was a necessary precaution to very real concerns. Keeping it locked in shows a mistrust in the American people to select a good Presidential candidate.

Accentuating the Positive

For those who are overly pessimistic about the current situation, let me just give an overview and explain why I think the current system is actually quite good. By accentuating the positives, my intention is to frame the debate in more forward-looking viewpoint that's conducive to progress, and not wallow in despair over the hopelessness or xenophobia inherent in the situation.

The current system does allow for children of immigrants to become President. If you're born in the United States, you are automatically a natural-born citizen, even if you are a Gonzales, Zhang, or Singh. That part is taken for granted, and in arguing for something better I certainly don't want to take the current system for granted. Rather, I want to make it a point to celebrate the tremendous opportunities already available.

Closing Remarks

There's some merit in the argument that political energy should be diverted to more pressing concerns like the economy, health care, transportation. There are more important things to address in the meantime.

Some would argue, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But I'm saying that it's broken. Leaving rotten parts in the system leads to decay. But I acknowledge that, however simple it is, it's still a small issue compared with the bigger problems facing us today.

Since this is such a no-brainer, then, I suggest that it be put forward for passing as a bipartisan measure to encourage working together across the aisle, especially when more divisive issues take center stage. It will be a symbolic gesture to the American people and good practice for our elected representatives. I would welcome a well-argued case for keeping things the way they are.

A lot of times, the status quo is there for complicated reasons that are unknown to us, and set up in a way that we should not try to tamper with. I do not believe that this is one of those cases. The issue is simple, and all that's holding us back is our own reluctance and inherent mistrust of change, even if it's clearly for the better.


Help not wanted (The Economist)

Should the Constitution be amended for Arnold? (USA Today)

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