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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

I’m sorry, Nikki Haley, you are just wrong

The good news is that South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, took a shot at fellow Republican Donald Trump in her response to the State of the Union speech; the bad news is that she apparently knows no American history. Her seeming courage in protesting Trump’s anti-immigrant politics also is diminished by the fact that she is herself the daughter of immigrants. Her parents are from India, not the Mexico of Trump’s demons, but the skin color is similar – and not white enough for The Donald.

His mother was born in Scotland, and his father was only one generation removed from Germany. Barack Obama’s mother was born in Kansas, and he was born in Hawaii, but that was not enough for Trump, who was the original “birther” questioning Obama’s citizenship. This really is about skin color, not about citizenship.

Problems of proper birthplace also plague Republicans Ted Cruz (born in Canada, with a Cuban father) and Marco Rubio (born in Miami to Cuban immigrants). Rubio’s parents came in 1956, prior to the Castro revolution, and did not have the excuse of political persecution that soon allowed other Cubans to be exempt from the procedures that immigrants from all other nations have to go through. More than a half-century later, Cubans still are immediately granted federal aid, an entitlement that applies to no other group. Rubio and Cruz thus are young men who grew up in a milieu that encourages them to consider themselves exempt from things that others have to endure. Indeed, many right-wingers who argue for American exceptionality often seem to base that ideology on their own perceived personal exceptionality. Ordinary rules simply do not apply to these guys.

Democratic governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm behaved very differently. Born just a few miles over the line in Vancouver, Canada, she came to the US at age four. She did an excellent job as governor at a time when Michigan’s crucial automobile industry was flagging – much of it because of dealmakers in the style of Donald Trump. A decade or so ago, I very much wanted Granholm (who is the sister-in-law of former Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern) to run for president, but she assumed that her Canadian birth made her ineligible. Although her credentials were equal to those of many candidates, she took seriously the constitutional requirement that presidents be “natural born” citizens of the United States. Her respect for the Constitution is infinitely greater than that of the arrogant Tea Partiers who wrap themselves in the flag and proclaim themselves to be constitutional “strict constructionists,” yet look for loopholes for themselves.

So what does the Constitution actually say about presidential eligibility? Article I, Section 4 reads: “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, shall be eligible to that office who shall not have attained the age of thirty-five years and been fourteen years a resident within the United States.” That’s it, in its entirety. Its use of negative language does make it is a bit confusing, so let’s break it down. First, we can eliminate the phrase “or a citizen of the United States at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.” The time was 1789, and this applies to no one alive in the twenty-first century. Next, let’s turn the legalistic language from negative to positive. Then it should be clear that presidential eligibility consists of only three things: one must be at least 35 years old; have lived in the US during the previous fourteen years; and be a “natural born citizen.”

Let’s assume they were not talking about LaMaze or other forms of natural childbirth in today’s world. Back then, all mothers delivered their babies naturally, as neither anesthetics nor forceps had been developed. Along with “natural born,” we also should consider “citizen.” Those mothers (and other women) were citizens in the sense that they had to obey the laws and pay taxes, but not in the sense that they were entitled to civil rights such as voting or holding office or even owning property. The Constitution had and has holes in it, which has provided work for lawyers and judges from the time of its implementation onwards.

What is particularly perplexing here, though, is the phrase that is almost always ignored: the requirement that a president have lived in the US during the last fourteen years. This seems rather contradictory to the presumable requirement of having been born on US soil and reaching the minimum age of 35. The only way to reconcile these thoughts would be to suppose that a citizen (a male citizen, of course) would have been born here, gone aboard, and returned home. To be president, he had to have been back in the US during the last fourteen years. If we look at this in the context of its times, it becomes rather reasonable.

In 1789, many wealthy families sent sons abroad for their education, and the requirement that presidents be in the US during the past fourteen years probably was intended to make sure that they were involved in recent American events. The requirement might have made sense then – but let’s put our imaginations to work and consider the possibility of an astronaut or a diplomat or an international business executive who had lived elsewhere and returned, say, thirteen years before wanting to run for president. Yes, I join you in asking why fourteen years?

It’s an arbitrary number that doesn’t match the four-year presidential terms that the Constitution also mandates. Other questions can arise: Is there meaning behind the use of “resident,” as opposed to “citizen?” Do the years of residence have to be consecutive? What about candidates who were born in a territory before it became a state, especially places such as Louisiana that belonged to another country? The founding fathers were busy guys, though, with a lot to debate. Not everything got completely thought through, and no lightening struck from on high. It’s important to remember that they were not drafting a sacred text, but rather a document applicable to their own time.

And thus, another factor in the fourteen-years requirement doubtless was France’s revolution against its all-powerful king, which was going on in the 1780s. Although they had fought a revolution against a less dominating English king in the 1770s, not all of our founding fathers approved of what was happening in France during the next decade. In fact, most did not, as French peasants were seizing the estates of aristocrats and executing them – and that was unspeakably analogous to the possibility of slave revolts here. Therefore the Constitution’s writers probably intended their “fourteen years” phrase to prevent the election of anyone who had been too recently exposed to revolutionary thought in Europe.

The bottom line for today, though, is that most of us don’t even know about the fourteen years, while the “natural born” phrase generates a great deal of noise. I think it’s time for clarification of the whole sentence, with a national debate and a Supreme Court ruling – or even better, a constitutional amendment that would address the issue, just as female citizenship was addressed with the 19th Amendment. As our world becomes smaller and our nation becomes more diverse, why should we arbitrarily limit our presidential choices because of a birthplace? I’d ignore Ted Cruz et al, and call it the “Jennifer Granholm Amendment.”

* * *

At last, back to Nikki Haley. I congratulate her on the spirit of her comment, but deplore her ignorance of the past. What she said was: “We’ve never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion. Let’s not start that now.” Kudos for the “not start,” Governor Haley, but Donald Trump is hardly the first biased bully in our history. To say that we never have “done anything based on race or religion” is either sadly uninformed or deliberately denying the facts -- or maybe both.

Let’s start with 1619, when the Virginia colony first imported Africans as slaves. They codified race-based slavery into law soon after, and in 1662, Virginia’s legislature further declared: “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted…that all children…shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother.” This was in direct contrast to the patriarchy these men preserved for themselves, as for the next three centuries, a white woman had no legal right to custody of the children she bore.

On religion, there were laws and laws -- and even more, extremely bad behavior. Spanish Florida completely banned Protestants; anyone who failed to pretend to convert to Catholicism was subject to execution. New Englanders who famously (and falsely) came here for freedom of religion were quick to punish anyone who disagreed with even their own brand of Protestantism. Anne Hutchinson was the mother of at least a dozen children and at age 47, again was pregnant in 1647, when she was banished from Massachusetts because she dared to disagree with preachers. Mary Dyer, the mother of five, was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of being a Quaker in a Puritan colony.

Hundreds of women (and some men) were cruelly executed as witches through out the colonial era. Attention focuses on Salem in 1688, but most Americans at the time truly believed the Devil walked among them and implemented his will through witchcraft. Prominent, respected men who considered themselves to be just and reasonable nonetheless passed laws that made these killings legal. As in some Muslim nations today, church and state were the same, and our founders similarly were theocrats who imposed religion with the force of law.

Connecticut’s last execution for witchcraft was in 1768, just two decades prior to the writing of the Constitution. In that context, we must praise the founding fathers for prohibiting Congress from establishing any religion. Indeed, despite Tea Party declarations that we are a Christian nation, the Constitution’s writers deliberately made no reference to Christianity, God, or anything else pertaining to religion – except to ban its establishment. They made that the very first agenda item in the Bill of Rights. Still, many states of the new nation prohibited Jews from voting, and legal discrimination against Catholics was routine until the 1840s.

Although the federal government always has been more friendly than states to racial and religious minorities, even the 1789 Constitution recognized race as within its purview of lawmaking: you probably remember that in creating a decennial census for distribution of congressional seats, the founders declared a slave to count as three-fifths of a person. Long after that, Congress continued to adopt race-based legislation -- and not just regarding African Americans. Congress routinely appropriated money for the genocide of Native Americans, and many records attest to the fact that national leaders openly said it was their race that made these people targets for extermination. Racism was similarly bold with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which declared that people from China never could become citizens, no matter how long they or their descendents might live in America. We did the same with Japan in 1907, and I’m sure you know that people of Japanese heritage were imprisoned during World War II, no matter if they and even their parents had been born in the US.

So, I’m sorry, Nikki Haley, you are just wrong. I wish you were right. We would have a better world if we all could live where we wish to live, and if there were no such thing as national citizenship. We are getting over our long history of fighting about race and religion; maybe in another few decades, we can do the same with citizenship. Imagine living together in peace simply as human beings on Planet Earth.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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