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Gautam Dutta Headshot

John McCain: Citizen of the US?

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Last week, the McCain campaign ridiculed Barack Obama for calling himself a "citizen of the world," during the latter's (extremely) well attended speech in Berlin.

Whatever your opinion of either candidate, McCain's broadside exposed two ironies. For starters, JFK used that very phrase nearly half a century ago, in his timeless Inaugural Address.

But the second irony provides the kicker: McCain might not even be eligible to run for president -- because he may not have been a US citizen when he was born.

For all their wisdom and virtue, the Founding Fathers disenfranchised a large segment of our country when they drafted the Constitution. While we have made much progress, the Constitution still bans immigrants from running for president. So who can't run for the White House? Let's see: California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (born in Austria), Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (born in Canada), two-thirds of Asian Americans, 40 percent of Latinos -- and maybe even John McCain.

Law professor Gabriel Chin just published a paper with a politically charged thesis: John McCain is ineligible to run for the White House.

How did Chin reach this explosive conclusion? He started with two inconvenient facts:

1. The Constitution only allows "natural born citizens" to run for president (article II, section 1).

2. Although his parents were both US citizens, John McCain might not be a "natural born citizen" because he was born in the Panama Canal Zone.

McCain was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936, when it was an unincorporated US territory. At the time, it was at best unclear whether anyone born in the Panama Canal Zone was a "natural born citizen" -- that is, a citizen at birth. (Earlier, the Supreme Court had decided that residents of unincorporated US territories were not guaranteed full citizenship rights.)

To fill in this gap, Congress passed a law making everyone born in the Panama Canal Zone a citizen. But here's the catch: that law was passed in 1937 -- the year after McCain was born. Therefore, Chin concludes, McCain was not a US citizen on the day he was born.

For better or worse, no court will touch this issue before the election. In New Hampshire, a voter has brought a lawsuit challenging McCain's eligibility. That case will probably be tossed on a technicality (i.e., the voter cannot sue because he hasn't been "harmed").

Something is terribly wrong when American citizens -- including most Asian Americans and many Latinos -- cannot run for a land's highest office. The Constitution must be amended so that all naturalized citizens (including McCain) can also seek the White House.

This should not be a partisan or ideological issue. In fact, uberliberal Sen. Ted Kennedy and archconservative Sen. Orrin Hatch both support such an amendment.

To be sure, some oppose allowing naturalized citizens to become president for one main reason: the spectre of the so-called Manchurian candidate (here's nativist Wes Clark on the topic). Basically, they fear that immigrants might betray their adopted land.

But there's no reason to be afraid. Currently, if someone moves to the US just one day after being born, he or she cannot run for president. Does that make any sense? Is it fair?

What's more, there is a way to ensure that an immigrant has built enough ties to this country. Just require all naturalized presidential candidates to have been US citizens for at least 20 years (that's what Hatch has proposed).

Finally, there's political reality: immigrants usually have a tougher time running for any political office. While there's no doubt Obama was born in the USA (in Hawaii), some voters still ask whether he is "really" American -- but give McCain a free pass. Why? Because, unlike McCain, Obama had an immigrant father and spent part of his childhood in a country where Christianity isn't the majority religion.

Like McCain and Obama, we are all proud citizens of the United States. Let's make it possible for every American to dream about becoming president.