How Kamala Harris' Birthright Citizenship Spiraled Into a Racist Controversy

No, it's not an issue, and yes, the controversy is racist.

It didn't take long for the "controversy" to begin. Just days after Kamala Harris announced her bid to become president in 2020, the racist attacks on Harris' eligibility started. "Kamala Harris is NOT eligible!" (opens in new tab) cried right-wing activist Jacob Wohl on Twitter. Later, when Joe Biden asked Harris to be his vice president, with the pair ultimately winning the 2020 election to become president and president-elect, the attacks started up again. To be clear: The only technical requirements a presidential candidate (opens in new tab) must meet are that he or she is 1) a natural-born citizen of the United States, 2) a resident for 14 years, and 3) 35 years of age or older. Wohl was claiming that Harris is not, in fact, a "natural-born American" (we'll get into the specifics shortly).

But first, let's break this down once and for all: Kamala Harris has birthright citizenship, (opens in new tab) and in the United States, that makes her eligible to president, vice-president, or any other office she chooses. (She's also deeply qualified (opens in new tab) to all of those roles, for what it's worth, but unlike the status of her citizenship, that isn't encoded in the Constitution.)

Speaking of the Constitution, let's start there. Per the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1, which was added in 1868:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

In other words: If you are born in America, you are an American. That's the way America works, and has been working for more than 150 years. (Interestingly, the U.S. is one of only a handful countries that upholds birthright citizenship, (opens in new tab) but that's neither here or there when it comes to Harris.)

Of course, that hasn't stopped certain people from debating this particular point—particularly, narrowing down the definition of natural born citizen. Courtesy of a commentary piece  (opens in new tab)on the San Antonio Express News: "As a constitutionalist, I believe the definition of a natural-born citizen is one who was born on American soil of two parents who were American citizens at the time of their birth." This pulls from information in a book the framers of the Constitution used (information that, it should be noted, did not make it into the Constitution).

The piece continues: "Based on the information I have found, neither of Sen. Kamala Harris’ parents were American citizens at the time of her birth. Therefore, I believe it is impossible for her to be a natural-born citizen, which is one of the requirements to be president."

But, to be fully clear here, by the definition currently written in the Constitution, Harris is eligible to serve her country in office. Changing or expanding the current wording just to invalidate her seems...let's call it excessive. But this kind of attempt to create "disqualification on a technicality" helps spread of misinformation around Harris's citizenship and her career.

Which brings me to "birtherism," a term that you might remember came out of Trump slinging falsehoods at then-candidate Obama over and over again (opens in new tab) in 2008. Trump, it should be noted here, was not even a politician at the time, merely a real-estate mogul and reality TV star who decided to declare that Obama was not eligible to be president, spreading lies about his place of birth that were categorically false. (opens in new tab) But Trump's conspiracy theory thrilled an army of right-wingers. Even after Trump rescinded the comment in 2016, they continued to attack America's former First Family (opens in new tab) for being "ineligible," which is just a euphemism here for "not white."

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The "birtherism" controversy surrounding Obama—if "controversy" is the right term for a bigoted conspiracy—is grounded in racism. It always has been. (opens in new tab) This is also the case with Harris. Birtherism is a lie designed to perceive Americans of color as "un-American."

Let me be as clear as possible: Kamala Harris was born in the United States (Oakland, California to be exact (opens in new tab)), thus making her a citizen. Her parents were both immigrants—her mom from Chennai, India, her dad from Jamaica—and when they divorced, Harris spent her teenage years in Canada before returning to the U.S. for college. These are all facts that have no bearing on Harris' citizenship, but I mention them to explain why Harris, and only Harris, is being subjected to "birther" claims. Her parents are immigrants, and Harris herself is a woman of color, and even though conservatives routinely tout a route to citizenship as the American Dream (opens in new tab) writ large, a slice of the American population believe these facts make Harris too "other" to serve them in public office.

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By all means, people will and should provide plenty of reasons why they don't want Harris to be vice president. That, too, is enshrined in the Constitution—a right to a democratic electoral process. Say what you want about her—freedom of speech, too, is enshrined in the Constitution—but please make no mistake: To say that she may not be eligible for office is wrong. This is a fact.