Has the U.S. Always Offered Birthright Citizenship?

Politifact Texas checks out this claim from U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.

By Alain StephensSeptember 9, 2015 8:00 am| ,

It has been U.S. law since the country’s beginning that the children of American citizens born here or abroad are American citizens by birth.

At least that what Texas senator Ted Cruz says.

But is that a fact?

Gardner Selby from the Austin American-Statesman’s Politifact Texas fact-checking brigade is here to set things straight.

First off – Ted Cruz was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in 1970 to his American mother and Cuban father. He is now seeking the Republican presidential nomination. What got him talking about birthright citizenship?

He’s been asked so many times about his birth – and he has been up front about tangling with a legal issue that we did not re-plow for this fact check – that is, whether someone born abroad can run for president—and clear the constitutional hurdle that the president be a “natural born” citizen.

Most legal authorities say that term – natural born citizen – means someone is a citizen from birth and doesn’t have to go through a naturalization process to become a citizen. Cruz would fit that, it appears.

So what did Cruz say that your team fact-checked?

His words: “I am a United States citizen because my mother was a United States citizen, born in Wilmington, Delaware. And,” he said, “it has been the law since the beginning of the country that the children of American citizens born here or abroad are American citizens by birth.”

But really?

We queried law professors who noted a 1790 law, approved by the very first Congress, stating children born abroad to citizens could be U.S. citizens. The 1790 act said the children of U.S. citizens “born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens,” so long as the father in each instance was previously a U.S. resident.

What about the mother’s residency?

The law was silent about that – and, it turns out, whether someone born abroad could inherit citizenship through their mother wasn’t spelled out until … 1934.

Hold on – 140 years later?

Correct. So one expert, Kristin Collins at Boston University, told us it would be accurate to say that from 1790 on, some foreign-born children of American parents were citizens at birth, meaning this clearly passed down through fathers. In 1934, under some lobbying by women’s rights advocates, Congress liberalized the law to specify that citizenship to a child born abroad passed through mothers or fathers.

Well – how did Cruz’s claim come out on the Texas Truth-O-Meter?

Cruz was right about there almost always being a provision that children born abroad to citizens are citizens by birth – but he did not clarify that citizenship through mothers wasn’t cemented in place until the 1930s.

MOSTLY TRUE.