Natural born vs Naturalized citizens: Who really “is” American?

It sometimes seems the real question for the 2020 presidential elections in the United States will not be migration, as was expected, but citizenship. And more in particular the question who are the “true” Americans. The question of citizenship runs through US history and has been complicated from the very start by the concept of the “natural born citizen”. Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution notes that only natural born citizens are eligible to the office of President, without specifying however whether this status requires the person to be born in the US or not.



The stronger role of ius soli (right of the soil) compared to ius sanguinis (right of blood) in the US has led to remarkable situations. Boris Johnson, Britain’s new Prime Minister, was also an American citizen until a few years ago as a result of his birth in New York. He was therefore one of the unfortunate “accidental Americans” that FCI reported on last year, as the US is unique in the world for requiring its citizens to file tax returns on their earnings under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) even though they live outside the US or, in Johnson’s case, have no connection to the US other than having lived there as an infant. French courts have recently made it clear that they will not save Americans abroad from the harsh effects of the FATCA, ruling that France’s measures to implement the Act did not contravene the country’s privacy laws.


On the other hand, the refusal to consider ius sanguinis as an equally legitimate ground has led to complications in our age of surrogacy. The New York Times recently reported on an American gay couple whose daughter, who was born abroad to a surrogate mother, cannot acquire US citizenship under the current law and would need a visa to join her parents in the US.



In addition to his earlier plan to abolish birthright citizenship by executive order, President Trump seemingly wants to continue playing the citizenship card in the run up to the 2020 elections by recently tweeting that four female congresswomen of colour should “go back” to where they came from, thus advocating a form of “selective citizenship”. Although three of the women were born in the United States, the fourth congresswoman Ilhan Omar is a naturalized citizen from Somalia. As noted in the Boston Review, this fact effectively makes Omar “distinct in the American psyche not merely because she applied for citizenship, but because the biological definitions attached to birthright make her unnatural”.


Coincidentally, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced this month that it will revise “the current naturalization test with improvements to ensure it continues to serve as an accurate measure of a naturalization applicant’s civics knowledge”. The USCIS notes that in Fiscal Year 2018, nearly 757,000 persons naturalised into US citizenship.


Ironically, it is estimated that the majority of natural born US citizens would not pass the citizenship test, and would particularly have difficulties with the “hard questions”. Naturalized citizens, on the other hand, who can only obtain citizenship through a difficult path can subsequently lose their citizenship in ways that natural born citizens cannot, as the Boston Review explains with many examples and as FCI discussed earlier in the context of naturalised military personnel in the US.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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