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Questioning American Identity

News & Features | April 13, 2015

In his speech to announce his presidential candidacy, Senator Ted Cruz told the story of his father moving from Cuba to the US. The main immigration issue in his campaign so far, however, seems to be the fact that Cruz was born in Canada.

The Constitution states that presidential candidates must be “natural-born citizens” of the US. There is no further definition of what counts as natural-born in the Constitution. According to a report prepared by the Congressional Research Service, “The weight of legal and historical authority indicates that the term ‘natural born’ citizen would mean a person… by being born abroad to U.S. citizen-parents; or by being born in other situations meeting legal requirements for U.S. citizenship ‘at birth.'” Despite this, it was only a matter of hours before Fox News began questioning Cruz about his eligibility to run.

It is unlikely that this fervor will die down anytime soon. President Obama faced many of the same questions during his race, and he has yet to see the last of them. A quick Google search on Obama’s birth certificate comes up with results like “10 Facts that Suggest Obama’s Birth Certificate is Fake” from MrConservative.com and a list of Obama citizenship conspiracy theories from Wikipedia. In an attempt to quiet the uproar about eligibility, the White House keeps a copy of the President’s birth certificate on its official website. There is no precedent to this, as no president has had to make his birth certificate widely available to the public before.

The outrage surrounding both Cruz and Obama begs the question, why are people so obsessed with our presidential candidates being “true” Americans?

In Obama’s case, many of the people questioning his legality and producing copies of his “real” Kenyan birth certificate were conservatives. In many cases it seems that they were simply unhappy with his liberal policies or the color of his skin and wanted to discredit him as much as possible. The same pattern does not hold true for Cruz, however. Fox News and Donald Trump questioned his eligibility, not just liberals who were unhappy at the prospect of Cruz’s increasing influence over American politics. This bipartisan concern with Cruz’s eligibility reveals just how many people fear the prospect of an “un-American” president.

Cruz moved to Texas when he was four and has lived in the US ever since. So, why is it so crucial that he wasn’t born here? Something to consider is what Americans see the president standing for.

“We all have stereotypes in our heads about national identity and when somebody’s campaigning to be the literal and symbolic leader of the US, [identity is] going to be part of the discussion” political science professor Deborah Schildkraut said.

For many, the president should be the epitome of what it means to be American, and a lot of times that means he or she was born and raised here. Being born in Canada and holding dual citizenship for much of his life makes Cruz less than the “100 percent American” some of his constituents are looking for.

The issue is that there is no clear consensus on what it means to be “American”. Is it someone who was born and raised here? Someone who owns property here? What about someone who has lived here their whole life and who speaks Korean at home? A dual citizen?

There is a lot of confusion regarding the American narrative. On the one hand, we are a melting pot, a salad bowl. We are proud to welcome people from all around the world. On the other, we are nationalistic and fiercely patriotic. Loyalty to the US is sometimes used as a filter to determine who is “truly” American and who is not.

“[Eligibility] is one of these things that can capture the American imagination whether or not it affects the election outcome. We know that in this day and age partisanship drives pretty much everything, most Democrats voted for Obama and most Republicans didn’t,” Schildkraut said.

The primaries are a time in which individual characteristics become more important because people can’t fall back on partisanship, a habit Schildkraut calls information shortcuts.

“Candidates are so similar and people need something to hold onto. Once partisanship is off the table in the primaries, people start to focus more on if someone is an ‘other,’” she said.

It is no wonder that the aftermath of Cruz’s announcement is centered on his eligibility to run when the complexity of what it means to be an American is layered on top of presidential politics.

John F. Kennedy’s campaign followed a similar trend. Many Americans were concerned because he was Catholic, his loyalties would be split between the US and the Pope. He carefully made the distinction between being the Democratic candidate for the presidency and being the Catholic candidate for presidency, claiming that his religion was his private affair and would not influence the way he governed. To gain trust he had to show that he represented America and only America. Cruz and others whose eligibility to run has been questioned face a similar challenge. People expect him to be the embodiment of what it means to be a true American.

For many, defining who is eligible to lead our country is one way to determine who can identify as American and who can’t. It is a way people can push those seen as “foreigners” away and pull themselves into a crowd of proud flag-wavers. It is a way others can broadcast who the mainstream American narrative says belongs here, without any regard for the multiplicity of the American identity. People like Obama and Cruz will continue to run for president and throw our limited definition of “American” into disarray. The question is, will our definition of American, and our obsession with finding it, change as presidential candidates do? Or will we keep examining birth certificates, unsure of what exactly it is we are afraid of finding?

Art by Eva Strauss.