“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 …” (US Constitution)
“Naturalization is the process by which U.S. citizenship is granted to a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress” (USCIS)
November 2016. In the week after the election, when white supremacists were convening in Washington, DC, a group of scholars gathered on the other side of Washington at the Folger Shakespeare Library, where we discussed the politics of conversion in Early Modern theatre. Throughout the symposium, a collaboration with McGill’s Early Modern Conversions project, the past pressed heavily on the current political situation in America — 425 years later and an ocean away. This month, I will share some of the more powerful moments that resonated with me, in the city where laws and policies that will impact our future will be made.
But first, a detour. Like most Americans, my family comes from immigrants: some from seventeenth-century England, some from twentieth-century Lebanon, and everywhere in between. In one post-election conversation, a relative who recently earned their US citizenship expressed dismay that they could run for a senatorial office but could never become president. As we all know from the “birther” controversy, the US Constitution declares that only a “natural born citizen” can serve as president. Constitutional scholars and courts repeatedly interpret that phrase as referring to only a person granted so-called “birthright citizenship” — generally, someone born in the US or to an American parent.
In theory, for the Founding Fathers, that provision would have prevented England from planting a foreign-born US citizen who would get elected President and reunite America with England against the will of the American people …
… However, this constitutional clause continues to make so-called “naturalized citizens” in effect second-class citizens by mere accident of their birth. Though these former foreign nationals are given all the ordinary rights and privileges of “natural-born” citizens, the extraordinary eligibility for presidency remains exclusive to those with “birthright citizenship.” There remains an assumed latent threat inherent in the foreign location of their birth.
This conversation reminded me of the research on English Jewish converts to Christianity presented by Steven Mullaney (University of Michigan) at the Folger. From the eleventh into the eighteenth century, the Domus Conversorum (“House of Converts”) in London housed and boarded Jews who converted to Christianity and found themselves displaced from their former communities. With financial support from the state, converts lived together in pseudo-monastic community. Though they took no vows, they remained apart from the rest of the world — among neither their Jewish nor their born-Christian brethren. They existed in an in-between state in an in-between space.
Like the conversos of Inquisition-era Spain, Jewish converts in Early Modern England were treated as inherently suspicious, their fidelity always under question. Even though they had embraced what the English political system deemed to be the only true faith, in so doing they walked away from their heritage and family, which could be read as an essential act of betrayal. Anyone that could play the turncoat once was presumed to be inclined to do it again. One never fully shook their former identity. Thus, residents at the Domus Conversaron remained sequestered where they never got the opportunity to fully integrate into the English Christian community. In the wider English cultural imagination, there was always a threat that the converted Jew would revert to their former way of being.
The same applies to many naturalized American citizens, especially those whose otherness is visible or audible in their body. Though the constitutional ban on achieving the presidency might be the only explicit demarcation of naturalized citizens’ second-class citizenship, that contingency extends into the day-to-day operations of American political culture. Any naturalized citizen who has been asked where they’re “really” from has experienced the contingency of their status as an American, as if the Americanness they chose to adopt were somehow less real, less essential than the nationality they were born into.
Much of the xenophobic rhetoric lobbed around during and since the 2016 election, calling for Latinx-Americans to “go back where they came from” and for Muslim-Americans to seek out the terrorists in their communities, marks the limits of citizenship even for natural-born citizens whose allegiances are expected to be somewhere outside the invisible borders of America. Their American roots are anticipated to be shallower than those of white Christian Americans, more readily excavated or corrupted. Like the residents of the Domus Conversaron, their doubted loyalty to the nation alienates them from American political systems and their perpetual alienation prevents them from ever fulfilling white America’s artificial criteria for full Americanness. They remain in-between.
Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.