SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — Americans pride themselves on being part of a unique melting pot where tired, huddled masses of immigrants yearning to breathe free are conferred every opportunity to achieve their dreams. "If you work hard and play by the rules, this country is truly open to you. You can achieve anything," Austrian immigrant - and California governor - Arnold Schwarzenegger promised "fellow immigrants" at the Republican National Convention in New York Aug. 31.
Well, he's partially right: immigrants can achieve almost anything. However, the governor - along with millions of other civic-minded immigrants from across the political spectrum - is constitutionally precluded from the presidency. It's time to lift that unfair restriction. Congress has begun the process. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony today on a proposal to amend the Constitution to allow immigrants who have been naturalized citizens for at least 20 years to run for president. While Governor Schwarzenegger might be the most notable beneficiary, at its core this change is nonpartisan.
By preventing otherwise qualified immigrants from seeking the presidency, we undermine democracy not only for would-be officeholders, but for all voters who are denied the opportunity to choose from the best, most diverse pool of candidates.
Over the past century and a half, most changes to the Constitution have had the effect of eliminating antiquated and unfair barriers that limited the reach and stability of democracy. Nine of the last dozen amendments addressed either the right to vote or requirements relating to presidential qualification. Antidemocratic prohibitions that barred the direct election of senators, and others that blocked women, African-Americans, and residents of Washington, D.C., from voting have properly been eliminated. In addition, the voting age was lowered to 18 - draft age - in 1971.
One notable exception to this trend has been the continued irrational exclusion of otherwise qualified immigrants from the presidency. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution mandates that one be either a "natural born citizen" or a citizen at the time of the Constitution's adoption in 1787 to be eligible for the presidency. While there may have been good reasons for such a restriction in 1787, they are hardly a concern now.
Early in its history, America was a small, fledgling, untested democracy. For some, the prospect of a foreign-born president with ties to a more powerful and less democratic regime meant untenable risks, not only in the area of diplomacy and the fragile economy, but to domestic interreligious and class relations as well. However, the United States of 2004 is hardly the nation it was over two centuries ago in terms of influence, wealth, population, power, equality, and the presence of an informed electorate.
Many notable Americans were foreign born: Entertainer Bob Hope, scientist Albert Einstein, opera legend Enrico Caruso, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), US Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, singer Gloria Estefan, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili, and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, as well as secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2002 nearly 1 in 9 US residents - 33 million people - had come here from a foreign country. Foreign-born people accounted for half of the nation's population growth in 2002. Around the world, immigrant members of the US military risk their lives to defend American democracy but are denied full participation in it.
Immigrants have become leaders in commerce, entertainment, medicine, sports, government, and on the battlefield. As Schwarzenegger's convention address illustrated, in some ways immigrants may make better presidents. Their comparative frame of reference may actually foster a greater appreciation of the freedoms and opportunities offered by American democracy and capitalism. Voters in California and Michigan have already decided that immigrants of both major parties are simply too large a talent pool to exclude from executive positions in their states.
Now Congress has initiated the lengthy process of opening up our nation's highest office to immigrants. As we debate which individual will be our next president, we must also consider which groups we exclude. It is time we as a nation fully open the promise of democracy to fulfill not only the individual aspirations of immigrants, but also our collective interests in getting the best people to serve our nation at every level.
• Brian Levin is director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and is coauthor of the book, 'The Limits of Dissent.'