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on Wednesday, 15 February 2012
in The Rockefeller Report 2012

History of the Natural Born Citizen

Dear Readers, Since President Obama's election, there have been periodic false political arguments centered on his birth certificate. Georgia is now "home" to the latest more subtle approach, resting not on the authenticity of a birth certificate, but what is meant by "natural born citizen." 

Several Georgia voters (or electors) filed an objection with Georgia's Secretary of State's office contesting President Obama's place on March's primary ballot, which was just recently rejected by the administrative judge hearing the claim. Their elegant argument, as I understand it, is simply as follows: President Obama's father was not a United States citizen, e.g., he is not qualified to be President.  

According to the Constitution, there are only three (3) qualifications to be President: 35 years old; 14 years a resident of the United States (whatever this means); and, "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 ..." 

Lets dissect this phrase. You have to be "natural born" or a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. That's easy enough; there being no more Founding Fathers wandering around, the operative requirement is to be a "natural born" citizen. This saved Arnold Schwarzenegger the embarrassment of having his personal foibles exposed while running for President, as he is a citizen, but not "natural born."  

This all we have with which to work! In 1868, the 14th Amendment spoke with greater volume and clarity defining a citizen as: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof ..." The enabling legislation of the Civil Rights Acts uses even stronger language favoring citizenship as being conferred by mere birth on American soil. So, a "natural born citizen" should simply be someone born within the "dominion" of the United States (meaning that President Obama's paternal lineage should be irrelevant). 

It was not quite this simple and a debate lingered for a bit. In 1874, in the context of an early suffrage woman seeking the "privilege" of the citizenship right to vote, the United States Supreme Court noted that someone born in the United States to American citizens is clearly a "natural born citizen." Yet, it never decided if just being born on United States soil was enough, as the 14th Amendment neglected to explicitly so state; "English Common Law" would, therefore, have to eventually be relied upon ... but, on another day. 

That "day" came in 1898, when the Court definitively tackled this issue. An American-born child's parents were Chinese citizens, who had worked and lived in San Francisco with him until his 17th birthday. When he was an adult, this poor guy went to visit China and, upon attempting to return, was denied re-entry under the xenophobic "Chinese Exclusion Acts."  

At the outset, the Court determined that if he was an American citizen, he went home; if not, his reentry was constitutionally permitted. To reach a decision, the Court went through a long analysis of English Common Law (as foreshadowed 24 years earlier) – interpreting when fief and serf obligations and allegiances to the Crown legally created "subjects."  In doing so, the Court concluded that, except for children of ambassadors or those in active hostilities with the Crown, "every child born in England of alien parents was a natural-born subject." 

Historically, American jurisprudence had reached, generally, similar conclusions conferring citizenship by birth and, in the Court's opinion, the explicit language of the 14th Amendment, the Civil Right Acts, and the official record of Congressional debate, ended the debate. You can't get much more "natural" than this and Mr. Kim was permitted to return home.  

Thus, since at least 1898, the law of this land has been that someone born within the dominion of the United States, irrespective of the origin or status of the parents, is a citizen by birth.  This would seem to defuse this latest attack on President Obama's legitimacy and we can all rest easy that the last few years did not involve any illegality. 

Local attorney Jim Rockefeller owns the Rockefeller Law Center and is a former Houston Co. Chief Assistant District Attorney, and a former Miami Prosecutor.

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