Newsweek published an opinion piece Tuesday by right-wing law professor John C. Eastman, who argued that Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) might not be eligible for the office of vice president as she’s not a “natural born citizen” — or even for the Senate seat she now holds as she may not actually be a U.S. citizen at all. Since the publication, the magazine has gained the scorn of many for its revival of the racist “birther” conspiracy theories that were once used against President Barack Obama.
While this talking point might seem too absurd to go anywhere politically, it is also very important to remember that President Donald Trump launched his own political journey by championing the conspiracy theory that Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen (and he got a lot of help from Fox News along the way). Now, the Trump campaign is also spreading Eastman’s screed in Newsweek:
Just to be absolutely clear on this point: Harris was born in Oakland, California. The birther conspiracy theories against Harris began in 2018 and were amplified by such figures as Obama-era birther Charles Kerchner, serial political fraudster Jacob Wohl, and followers of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. And the idea is spreading online again.
In his Newsweek piece, Eastman argued that because Harris’ parents were immigrants from Jamaica and India, and not citizens at the time of her birth, she did not meet the 14th Amendment’s requirement 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.” This is the same sort of word-parsing of the 14th Amendment that various birther cranks had previously attempted to employ against Obama, who was born in the United States to an American mother while his father was from Africa.
Eastman then pondered Harris’ eligibility to serve as a senator and whether she is in fact an American.
“Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution specifies that to be eligible for the office of senator, one must have been ‘nine Years a Citizen of the United States.’ If Harris was not a citizen at birth, we would need to know when (if ever) she became a citizen,” Eastman then tried to tie this notion to concerns about foreign interference in the election: “Indeed, with persistent threats from Russia, China and others to our sovereignty and electoral process, those concerns are perhaps even more important today.”
Eastman’s biographical data at the end of the piece did not originally include a key fact about him: He previously ran for attorney general of California in 2010, losing in the Republican primary — while the office was eventually won by Harris.
Back in 2018, Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox rebutted arguments from Eastman and other opponents of birthright citizenship, by showing that they distort the congressional record of the debates over the 14th Amendment in 1866. In fact, the issue of granting birthright citizenship to the children of immigrants was very much a matter of discussion — and attempts to change the language in order to exclude a number of groups were actually defeated.
If this debate had occurred a decade or so later, things might have turned out differently. By then, conservative Southern Democrats were returning to Congress, while liberal Northern Republicans were souring on immigration and civil rights. But in the overwhelmingly Republican post-Civil War Senate of 1866, the clear intention was to grant citizenship to anyone born in the U.S., regardless of parentage, unless those parents were foreign diplomats or [American] Indians outside U.S. jurisdiction. The amendment had been drafted to guarantee the rights of freed slaves and their children, but its supporters and opponents agreed that it offered the same status to other discriminated-against groups such as the Romani people and Chinese immigrants. There is no reasonable way to read the 1866 debate in the Congressional Globe and not come away with the understanding that it was about birthright citizenship.
As an example of how the birther arguments are remarkably malleable for partisan considerations, this concept seems to have never been brought up in any prominent fashion during the presidential candidacy of former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA), who was also born to immigrant parents who were not yet citizens. And ironically, Eastman previously wrote a piece in National Review back in 2016, arguing that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) — who was running a for president at the time — was in fact eligible for the presidency, though he was born in Canada to a U.S. citizen mother living abroad.
The online reactions to Newsweek were fierce:
For its part, Newsweek has followed up with an additional statement in its opinion section, unbelievably titled “Editor's Note: Eastman's Newsweek Column Has Nothing to Do With Racist Birtherism.”
“His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’” the editor’s note declares, “the racist 2008 conspiracy theory aimed at delegitimizing then-candidate Barack Obama by claiming, baselessly, that he was born not in Hawaii but in Kenya. We share our readers' revulsion at those vile lies.”
“The debate pertaining to the precise constitutional requirements for the Article II phrase ‘natural born Citizen,’ having been aired in 2000, 2008 and 2016, is unlikely to fall quiet soon,” the editors conclude.
In fact, this “debate” is not a debate at all, but the spreading of racial paranoia and imagined legal rationales for it is indeed “unlikely to fall quiet soon.”