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Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University.


All of a sudden, everyone in the United States wants to know if Ted Cruz – who was born in Calgary to an American mother – is eligible to be our president. But I have a different question: Why do you have to be a natural-born citizen in order to lead the country?

In Canada, you don't; that's why the British-born John Turner could serve as prime minister in 1984. Why do Americans think the president has to be American from birth?

For our Founding Fathers, the answer lay in national security. If foreign-born Americans could become president, foreign powers might use them to undermine the new republic. Just 15 years before our Constitution was drafted, three countries – Austria, Prussia and Russia – conspired to elect a puppet king in Poland; shortly after that, the three powers partitioned Poland among themselves. Unless we barred foreign-born candidates from our presidency, warned one delegate to the Constitutional Convention, "the fate of Poland may be that of united America."

In 1787, these fears made sense. Today, our round-the-clock media scrutiny would quickly expose any foreign-born candidate who was serving as a foreign agent. Indeed, a hostile country wishing to infiltrate the White House would be much wiser to work through a native-born politician, who would naturally draw less attention than a foreign-born one.

Unlike the framers of the Constitution, moreover, we live in a multicultural democracy. They could not imagine someone like Barack Obama becoming president, because they restricted the full rights of citizenship to white men.

But today, we tell a very different story about ourselves. We are a country of diverse peoples, bound together not by race or religion but by a shared set of civic principles: individual liberty, elected government and equality under the law. But our rules on presidential eligibility suggest exactly the opposite. Some Americans, the ones who were born here, are more equal than others.

That's why Republican Senator Orrin Hatch proposed a bill in 2003 to allow anyone who has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years to run for president. Skeptics dubbed it the "Arnold Amendment," suspecting that Mr. Hatch was simply clearing the way for the Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger, soon to be elected governor of California, to run for the White House.

Whatever his motives, Mr. Hatch was correct on principle. Naturalized citizens possess every other right and duty in our country: they vote, pay taxes, serve on juries, fight in the armed forces. And they're eligible for every other elected and appointed office, too. Several other governors (including Michigan's Jennifer Granholm, who was born in Vancouver) came to the United States as children; so did two of our most prominent secretaries of state, Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.

Significantly, the Constitution's ban on foreign-born presidents contained one exception: If you had already immigrated here in 1787, you could still seek its highest office. That allowed the foreign-born members of the Constitutional Convention, including Alexander Hamilton, to retain the dream of becoming chief executive.

Why deny the dream to U.S. immigrants today? I don't care for Ted Cruz, but I also don't care if he was American at birth. Neither should anybody else.