An Alien in the White House?
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With Hillary Clinton and a platoon of lesser luminaries at his heels, President Bush descended on New York City's famous Ellis Island last week to harangue a bunch of new Americans with the insight that "immigration is a not a problem to be solved; it is a sign of a confident and successful nation." Of course, a confident and successful nation doesn't need many immigrants, but the President's visit was really a sign that he has no plans to give up pandering to new citizens whose votes he and his party have decided to turn into their political base.

How far Mr. Bush and the Republicans will go to achieve that goal still isn't clear, but there's no indication they're willing to go quite as far as some movement conservatives want. Just before Mr. Bush's Ellis Island expedition, two editors of National Review Online popped onto the screen with the recommendation that Mr. Bush actually change the U.S. Constitution in order to win immigrant votes.

John J. Miller and Ramesh Ponnuru unbosomed their grand strategy that by peddling a constitutional amendment that would remove the Constitution's exclusion of immigrants from being eligible to serve as president of the United States, Mr. Bush could expect to win the votes of-who exactly? Immigrants in general? Hispanics? Yuppy conservatives who feel guilty for not being liberals? The two editors never quite make clear what voting blocs will be swayed by what they dub the "Bush amendment." But that's not the only reason their proposal is-next to the president's sentiment that "immigration is a not a problem to be solved"-probably the dumbest idea of the year, if not the decade.

In a nation that is really confident and successful and therefore doesn't allow millions of aliens to invade it, push out its natives, and redesign its culture and politics, the provision of Article II, Section 1 that "no person except a natural born citizen" can be eligible to serve as president would not be important. It was important to the Framers who inserted it into the constitutional text because, as Mr. Miller and Mr. Ponnuru suggest, they "may have believed that the country's chief elected official needed to possess an inborn sense of American culture." But most citizens of a country do possess that, and if you don't have many immigrants anyway, there's no reason to exclude them from the chief executive slot.

But precisely because the United States today has millions of immigrants and its political class shows no sign whatsoever of thinking we need fewer, the provision remains as important as it ever was, and probably more so. Mr. Miller and Mr. Ponnuru obviously don't share the Framers' quaint superstition that the president should "possess an inborn sense of American culture," and as a matter of fact it's not very clear that either one of them even knows what such a sense would involve.

"An immigrant president most likely would embrace America with the zeal of a convert," they assure us. "He would be a flag-waving patriot whose love of country exceeds that of most native-born Americans. He would also probably have been raised in the United States since early childhood." How they know any of this is even less clear, but most of it, even if true, is beside the point.

The point is not to have a president who waves the flag more than anyone else or pounds his chest about "patriotism" to the point of tedium. The point is to have a president who understands and is loyal to the historic nation he leads. Presidents like Bill Clinton, who thinks it's terrific the United States will soon cease to have "a dominant European culture," aren't that kind, native-born or not. Neither perhaps is a president who tells us that "immigration is not a problem." You can wave the flag as much as you want, but that says nothing about what you know and believe about what the American nation really is.

It's possible an immigrant would understand that better than many native Americans and indeed I know some who do. But most don't, and most probably never will. By putting in the Constitution the immigrant exclusion language, the Framers simply did all they knew how to do to ensure that whoever became president would not only be born and raised in this country but also would thereby acquire some understanding of and commitment to it.

Of course if you think being an American means simply assenting to the "proposition" contained in one sentence fragment in the Declaration of Independence-which is what the editors of National Review believe these days-then there really isn't much point in keeping the exclusion in the Constitution. Nor, for that matter, the Constitution itself.


July 16, 2001

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