Art by Joanna Yu
Children love to dream. They believe they can be rock stars and fireman; they can be inventors or artists. They can even be president. Senior Stephanie Zhang did not differ from any other child who wanted to grow up and be Commander and Chief of the United States. Like her pint-sized peers she said the pledge and studied hard, but there was still one obstacle in her way: she was born in China.
“I was in elementary school and possibly in second or third grade. Our teacher asked us to introduce ourselves to the rest of the class and one of the requirements was what we wanted to be when we grew up. When it was my turn, I got up and told the class I wanted to be president,” Zhang said. “A friend of mine who knew I immigrated to the U.S. said out loud that me being president was impossible because I was not a natural born citizen. I think the teacher also confirmed that only natural born citizens can become president.”
Zhang’s heartbreaking reality check is the result of the Natural Born Citizen clause of the Constitution, which requires that a candidate for president must be a natural born U.S. citizen. A long history of English common law and the desire to make a new, distinctly non-British country gave birth to this principle. However, for children like Zhang, this history does little to comfort or interest.
“At the fourth grade level, I think most kids are trying to understand what government is and how it relates to them. I focus more on the responsibility and purpose of government,” Rock Bridge Elementary teacher Jamie Blackburn said. “I can’t say that I’ve ever said immigrants can’t be president. I think that would portray a very negative view of our country. I want my students to be exposed to possibilities rather than restrictions.”
John Nies, a fifth grade teacher at Grant Elementary school agrees with Blackburn that doors need to be opened to young students rather than be closed.
“Usually, with respect to the legal qualifications for president, the discussion in fifth grade turns to the age requirements. In any case, it is always important to remind students according to the rules of the U.S. Constitution, the document can be changed,” Nies said. “These rules set up for a democracy can evolve so in case of age or naturalization, future citizens could change the requirements. It seems to me, though race and gender are not mentioned in the qualifications— and never have been as far as I know— it is totally possible someday we could have a legally elected foreign born nationals, and the group represented would feel a cultural transition maybe similar to African Americans with [Barack] Obama and women with [Hillary] Clinton.”
Even though her presidential aspirations were nowhere near concrete, Zhang was still upset that this choice was taken from her. As a child, she desired the prestige and potential to help the country that presidents had, but suddenly this was no longer an option for her.
“I was extremely confused as to why someone had to be born in the U.S. or its territories to be eligible for office.” Zhang said. “Does being born in the U.S. mean you’re more ‘American’ than those who are not? Does being an natural born citizen mean you’re more loyal to the U.S. than a naturalized citizen or immigrant? I’ve had questions like these ever since then and I haven’t heard of a good response yet.”
History offers answers to Zhang
John Jay, an original framer of the Constitution could provide the most accurate answer for Zhang. During the constitutional convention, Jay wrote George Washington advising him to only allow natural citizens to be the president in order to discourage “ambitious foreigners.” Thus, only people born with U.S. citizenship could be the president. Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History teacher Chris Fischer believes that the reasoning behind this clause could come from the desire to have a leader that exclusively desires to help America.
“This executive should reflect the will and the interest of the people, this sovereign nation… this person has to be American because Americans are unique from British,” Fischer said.
Even with this historical rationale, Fischer still believes that what has always been fact is falling out of favor. In his AP classes he has seen his students begin to see this requirement as antiquated. He himself even noted that those who go through the naturalization process are in some ways more qualified to represent the values of America.
“When you have such a pluralistic society, in a society of immigrants such as we have today, when you look for a chief executive you look for someone that really can lead the strongest country in the free world,” Fischer said. “Does that person have to be born on U.S. soil in order to manifest those talents? I think there is some that would maybe argue that’s not really necessary.”
Zhang agrees that this requirement hinders the democratic process. It excludes roughly 20 million Americans from running for presidential office, and in recent elections has served to cause hysteria over immigrants potentially running. Beyond harming national interests, Zhang also knows that it hurts some of the country’s smallest patriots.
“If you’re an immigrant child and were naturalized, you kind of have, at least for me, the impression that you’re not at the same level as natural born citizens. Although you have the same status as a natural born citizen, you don’t have the privilege to run for office,” Zhang said. “Even though I don’t want to be president anymore, it’s still confusing and irritating that I have an option taken away from me.”
Do you think the presidential requirements are fair? Leave a comment down below.