In general, a natural-born citizen of a country is someone who is legally recognized as that country's citizen as of the moment of birth, rather than by acquiring citizenship afterwards through naturalization.
In the United States, a person is considered to be born a citizen either due to place of birth within U.S. territorial jurisdiction (jus soli) or through descent from a U.S. citizen (jus sanguinis), or through some combination of those two elements.
"Natural born citizen" as presidential qualification
The special term "natural born Citizen" is used in particular as a requirement for eligibility to serve as President or Vice-President of the United States. Article II, Section 1, clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution states that:
- No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
The fourteenth amendment to the United State Constitution provides an additional source of constitutional doctrine that emphasizes birth "in the United States" and subjection to U.S. jurisdiction at the time of birth, as the defining elements of citizenship (other than citizenship by naturalization):
- "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. . ." Amendment XIV, section 1.
However, the full text of the fourteenth amendment does not mention the phrase "natural-born citizen" nor does it address Presidential qualifications in any way and thus provides little guidance in this matter. In fact, the phrase "natural born Citizen" isn't defined anywhere in the Constitution and its interpretation has never been squarely the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Significantly, however, Congress, in which a number of Framers sat, provided in the Naturalization Act of 1790 that "the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, . . . shall be considered as natural born citizens. . . ." This strongly suggests that the framers of the Constitution understood this phrase to refer to citizenship acquired at birth (whether or not that birth had taken place on U.S. soil).
The current effective federal statute, Title 8, Section 1401 (http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=browse_usc&docid=Cite:+8USC1401), first passed by Congress on June 27, 1952 and last amended on October 25, 1994, of the U.S. Code provides details on the circumstances under which persons are legally recognized by the United States to be "nationals and citizens of the United States at birth".
Some legal experts interpret "natural-born citizen" to mean a "citizen at birth." Under one such interpretation, anyone who is duly recognized as a "citizen at birth" persuant to the requirements of Title 8, Section 1401 of the U.S. Code would be considered eligible for the Presidency or Vice-Presidency.
However, this statutory argument is weakened by the following considerations:
- Congress probably did not intend to address presidential qualifications in the statute codified at 8 U.S.C. Section 1401, because the law actually passed by Congress does not purport to relate to the "natural born Citizen" qualification for president under Article II; and
- Even assuming that it was the intent of Congress to define the constitutional qualification "natural born Citizen," an enactment by Congress would be insufficient to change the Constitution.
The U.S. Supreme Court's reasoning in United States v. Won Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898)(which held that a person born within the jurisdiction of the U.S. but to noncitizens is thereby automatically a citizen) has been viewed by some legal scholars as indicating that a person born abroad, even to parents of U.S. citizens, does not constitue a "natural born" citizen. Likewise, Weedin v. Chin Bow, 274 U.S. 657, 663 (1927) recites that "under the common law which applied in his country, the children of citizens born abroad were not citizens but were aliens." But no Supreme Court case has yet squarely addressed what "natural born Citizen" means in the context of Article II, Section 1, clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution.
The only way for this issue to be conclusively determined would be for the United States Supreme Court to decide this precise question in an actual case. This means that someone who was born abroad, but who held U.S. citizenship from birth through a parent, would have to run for the presidency and be challenged, and then the case would have to make its way to the Supreme Court for a decision.
Throughout American history, several persons born abroad to U.S. citizen parents have sought the Presidency and none were challenged on their eligibility during their election campaigns. The most recent example of such a person was John McCain, born in Panama, who sought the Republican nomination for President in 2000. However, Senator McCain was actually born in the Panama Canal Zone, which means that he was born in a territory subject to United States jurisdiction. It seems likely that a person born on a U.S.-flag boat, or born in a territory under U.S. jurisdiction (for example, Barry Goldwater, who was born in Arizona before it became a state), or possibly even a person born in a U.S. embassy or consular office inside another country, would be included as "natural-born," under the legal fiction that a U.S. consulate is within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Of historical note, Martin Van Buren was actually the first "natural born citizen" to become President. Prior Presidents had been born British subjects and were not "natural-born Citizens" but were eligible because they qualified by being "a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution."