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What the conspiracy theory about Nikki Haley’s citizenship is really about

Why is Donald Trump so fixated on birthright citizenship?

Nikki Haley speaking into a microphone and surrounded by American flags at a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign event in New Hampshire.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Abdallah Fayyad is a correspondent at Vox, where he covers the impacts of social and economic policies. He previously served on the Boston Globe editorial board.

Donald Trump, who propelled his political career with the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, is again spreading baseless claims about who is and isn’t legally qualified to serve as president. And it’s revealing his vision for what he thinks American democracy should look like.

Just as in 2016, when Trump claimed that his primary opponent Texas senator Ted Cruz was potentially ineligible to be president, Trump is now casting doubt on yet another Republican rival’s citizenship. This time, it’s Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who is seeking to replace him as the GOP’s standard bearer. On his social media platform, Trump shared a post from the Gateway Pundit — a right-wing website that traffics in hoaxes and conspiracy theories — that falsely claimed she might not be legally eligible for the presidency because she’s somehow not a natural-born citizen.

For background, the US Constitution requires that presidents be natural-born citizens. While the founders didn’t offer a specific definition of “natural born,” the term has generally been understood to mean Americans who are citizens at birth, be it because they were born on US soil or because they were born to American parents.

In the past, Trump claimed that Obama and Cruz weren’t natural-born citizens because they were born outside the United States. But Obama is, in fact, a natural-born citizen because he was — contrary to what Trump claimed — born in Hawaii. And while Cruz was actually born abroad, in Canada, the general consensus among legal scholars was that he was also a citizen at birth because he was born to an American mother.

The latest conspiracy theory about Haley’s citizenship is slightly different. It doesn’t contest that she was born in the United States (she was, in a South Carolina hospital). It contends, wrongly, that Haley is not a natural-born citizen — and therefore disqualified from the presidency — because her parents, who immigrated from India, were not yet US citizens at the time of her birth.

Whatever Haley’s parents’ citizenship status was, the fact that she was born in a US state means that she is, undeniably, a natural-born citizen. It is her birthright, as enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t stop Trump from sharing the conspiracy theory about her citizenship.

By promoting the falsehood that Haley isn’t a natural-born citizen despite the fact that she was born in South Carolina, Trump isn’t just casting doubt on her citizenship; he’s normalizing the dangerous idea that, on its own, being born in the United States is an insufficient claim to full and unconditional citizenship — 14th Amendment be damned.

There’s a common thread among those whom Trump has accused of not being natural-born citizens: Obama was the country’s first black president; Haley, an Indian-American, would be the country’s first South Asian president if she somehow finds a path to victory; and had he won in 2016, Cruz would’ve been the first Cuban-American president.

To say that racism is the driving force behind Trump’s attacks on their citizenship would be to state the obvious. But couple that with the fact that the jurisdictions Trump baselessly claimed were bastions of voter fraud in 2020 had large Black populations, and his ideas about who is and isn’t really American become even clearer. That’s why Trump’s attack on Haley is so insidious: It fits squarely within his broader political project to redefine and dramatically limit who ought to be counted as a legitimate participant in American democracy.

Why the United States has birthright citizenship

Before the Civil War, there were conditions on who could be an American citizen, and Black people, whether free or enslaved, were routinely denied citizenship. In 1857, for example, the US Supreme Court delivered one of its most infamous decisions — Dred Scott v. Sandford — where the majority ruled that Black people could not be citizens of the United States. Black people, the Court argued, were “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

That’s the racist legal doctrine that the United States sought to eradicate when it ratified the Civil War Amendments. Specifically, the 14th Amendment — which enshrined citizenship as an unconditional constitutional right to anyone born in the country regardless of their race — states, in no uncertain terms, that “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.”

That amendment, ratified in 1868, had a profound impact on how we define American identity. “Birthright sets an even bar when it comes to being a citizen — all those born here are subject to the same threshold test, no matter whom they descended from. It ensures that, for those born in the United States, citizenship will not be conferred depending on their politics, race, faith, culture, gender, or sexuality,” Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, wrote last year. “Birthright safeguards those born here from political leaders who would mete out citizenship as a reward or withhold it as a punishment.”

But while the legal framework around birthright citizenship has more or less been settled for the last century and a half, that hasn’t prevented the United States from severely limiting people’s civil rights on the basis of race or national origin, nor has it stopped people from questioning a person’s citizenship, especially if that person is nonwhite. That’s why Trump’s lie about where Obama was born, for example, didn’t come out of nowhere. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic in 2017, birtherism was merely a “modern recasting of the old American precept that Black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.”

To be sure, Trump didn’t come up with the idea of rolling back birthright citizenship; it has been festering in right-wing circles for decades, and Republicans have repeatedly introduced legislation in Congress to significantly narrow down who the citizenship clause in the 14th Amendment would apply to.

Those efforts didn’t get very far but, with more and more support from people like Trump, that might not forever be the case.

Trump’s fixation on birthright citizenship isn’t new

The fact that Trump would attack Haley for benefiting from birthright citizenship shouldn’t come as a surprise. When he was campaigning for president in 2015, Trump said that he doesn’t consider Americans who were born to undocumented immigrants in the United States to be US citizens. He also said that Congress should pass a law to curtail birthright citizenship — though most experts doubt that’s possible short of a constitutional amendment.

While Congress did no such thing during his time in the White House, Trump still tried to undermine the legitimacy of birthright citizenship when he was president. “How ridiculous — we’re the only country in the world where a person comes in, has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years with all of those benefits,” he said in a 2018 interview with Axios. “It’s ridiculous, and it has to end.” (Trump was also wrong: While relatively uncommon around the world, the United States is hardly the only country with unconditional birthright citizenship.)

At the time, Trump said he could simply end birthright citizenship through an executive order (he could not). And while he continued to say he was seriously considering it, he had no legal authority to circumvent the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment.

Still, Trump turned to alternatives to limit cases of birthright citizenship during his presidency. Early on, his administration scrapped an Obama-era rule that sought to limit the practice of holding pregnant undocumented women in custody, and the number of pregnant women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement grew by over 50 percent. And in 2020, Trump’s State Department issued a rule that made it harder for pregnant foreigners to get US visas, arguing that “birth tourism” — the practice of traveling with the intent of giving birth in the US — “poses risks to national security.”

Since then, opposition to birthright citizenship has only grown louder in conservative circles. In fact, in addition to Trump’s renewed promise to restrict birthright citizenship, several of his opponents in the Republican primaries have tagged along. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for example, pledged to “end the idea that the children of illegal aliens are entitled to birthright citizenship.” Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who recently dropped out of the race, argued that the 14th Amendment has (unbeknownst to most legal scholars) been misinterpreted and that, if properly enforced, it would already exclude children of undocumented immigrants from getting citizenship.

Even Haley echoed Trump’s sentiment. “For the 5 million people who’ve entered our country illegally, I am against birthright citizenship,” she told Fox News last summer.

The politics of birthright citizenship

Ending birthright citizenship is an unpopular idea in the US. While public polls have varied, it’s clear that a solid majority of Americans support birthright citizenship. On the question of whether children of undocumented immigrants should automatically qualify for citizenship if they’re born on US soil, Americans are more evenly split — though even then, some polls have shown considerable opposition to changing the Constitution to exclude children born to unauthorized immigrants from the birthright citizenship clause.

So while campaigning against birthright citizenship might seem like a fool’s errand, there’s a reason Trump and some of his Republican opponents are doing it anyway: to use white identity politics to drum up support among the GOP’s base. As Ashley Jardina, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, argued in the Washington Post in 2018, “Trump’s potential proposal to end birthright citizenship is perfectly consistent with an identity politics centered on white grievances.” And in writing her 2019 book, White Identity Politics, Jardina found that white people who felt a “sense of solidarity with their racial group” were more likely than others to support ending birthright citizenship.

That’s why it’s such a dangerous campaign pledge: It makes yearning for an ugly past — when access to American citizenship depended on a person’s race — all the more acceptable in mainstream politics. That doesn’t necessarily mean that birthright citizenship is about to be upended anytime soon, but the debate over it could have lasting consequences for American democracy. After all, it’s probably easier to convince someone that an election was stolen if they already believe that a good chunk of the American electorate should not have had the right to vote in the first place.

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