Over the past decade, controversies surrounding birtherism have followed the election cycle in the US. Its origins are relatively recent – it first surfaced during former US President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, where Obama’s citizenship, birthplace and religious affiliation were questioned in what came to be known as the ‘birther movement’.
This election cycle, it appears to have resurfaced, targeting Democratic senator Kamala Harris. Questions were earlier raised on her eligibility as a presidential candidate, and now, after Joe Biden’s announcement, as his running mate.
What is the birtherism controversy?
During Obama’s time, members of the birtherism movement, many of whom were conservatives and Republican voters, claimed Obama was not eligible to become president of the United States because he was not a natural-born citizen.
Proponents of this movement claim that Obama was not born in the US state of Hawaii, but in Kenya. Some have questioned the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate, claiming that it is forged. There are others who claim Obama gave up his US citizenship while living in other countries during his growing up years.
Why is Kamala Harris’ citizenship being questioned?
Critics of the birtherism movement had said a decade ago that the attacks on Obama were racist, with such questions being raised against him because of his African-American heritage. The focus of the movement’s ire now appears to be Kamala Harris because of her Indian mother and Jamaican father.
Last week, at a press conference, Donald Trump questioned Harris’ eligibility to serve as vice president and president, when he implied that he had been informed about purported claims on social media saying she may be ineligible. When pressed, Trump referred to a law professor, John Eastman of Chapman University in the US, who had raised these claims in a Newsweek opinion piece. “I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump had responded.
Trump then said he had “no idea” regarding Harris’ eligibility and then asked the journalist whether she was questioning Harris’ eligibility because the candidate had “not been born” in the US. Trump ended his comments saying: “I just heard about it, I’ll take a look.”
Kamala Harris is a US citizen and was born in Oakland, California. That her parents were immigrants does not change Harris’ citizenship.
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Why is Trump focussed on birtherism?
Observers believe that in 2008, Donald Trump was one of the most prominent promoters of birtherism, by questioning Obama’s citizenship. Obama’s opponents and others who didn’t approve of him as a presidential candidate jumped onto Trump’s endorsement of these conspiracy theories.
Political analysts who have charted Trump’s journey to the White House believe that his endorsement of these birtherism claims during Obama’s presidential campaign significantly contributed to building his own profile for his eventual foray into US politics.
One of the most visible promotions of this conspiracy theory by Trump was in 2011, when during an interview on the US television programme Good Morning America, he said he was questioning Obama’s citizenship. The next year, Trump pledged $5 million to a charity of Obama’s choice if the latter made his college applications, transcripts and passport history public.
By 2016, weeks before results of the presidential election were announced, Trump acknowledged that Obama was a US citizen. But by then, these conspiracy theories had taken a form of their own, regurgitated by individuals who opposed Obama and the Democratic party, and held conservative views on issues like citizenship, immigration and race.
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Are birtherism controversies recent?
According to a news report by Vox, these conspiracy theories can be traced back to at least 1881, when Chester A Arthur became US president following the assassination of President James Garfield. At that time, there were theories being floated that Arthur was Canadian, although there was no clear evidence that this was the case.
The Vox report also cites how during the 1916 presidential campaign, one of Woodrow Wilson’s aides claimed that GOP nominee Charles Evans Hughes was ineligible because at the time of Hughes’ birth, his father was not an US citizen, although Hughes’ himself was born in the country.
Who is a US citizen?
According to the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution, “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.” In addition to this, the United States Naturalization Act of 1795 states that children born outside the jurisdiction of the US to parents who were US citizens would be considered citizens of the United States.