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What to know about false ‘birther’ claims about Nikki Haley

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley is eligible to serve as US president, despite right-wing “birther” questions about her natural-born citizenship that have been circulating in conservative media outlets and were recently amplified by former President Donald Trump.

Trump first promoted the false claim last week, by reposting a story from a conspiracy-peddling website that said Haley is disqualified from serving as president or vice president because “her parents were not US citizens at the time of her birth.” It was promoted again Wednesday by a pro-Trump legal blogger.

Trump also recently referred to Haley’s legal first name, Nimarata – misspelling it as “Nimrada” – in an online post attacking her Tuesday, in the latest example of a racist dog-whistle.

Claims that Haley can’t serve as president are false. Haley is a natural-born citizen – born in South Carolina in 1972 – and thus is eligible to serve as president.

Origins of the lie

Article II of the US Constitution sets the eligibility rules for presidents. They must be at least 35 years old; they must have lived in the US for at least 14 years; and they must be a “natural born citizen.” The Constitution doesn’t define that term, and the Supreme Court hasn’t ever ruled directly on what it means in relation to presidential eligibility.

But the legal consensus has consistently centered on the idea that a “natural-born citizen” is someone who was a citizen at the time of their birth. And in the US, anyone born on American soil automatically becomes a citizen, thanks to the 14th Amendment.

The origins of the birther allegations against Haley appear to be a recent Substack post by pro-Trump lawyer Paul Ingrassia, who graduated from Cornell Law School in 2022. Ingrassia argues that the Founding Fathers believed someone was only a “natural born citizen” if they were born on American soil to two parents who were already citizens.

“They’re saying this is well-settled law, and I disagree with that opinion,” Ingrassia told CNN in an interview. “All they should do is read the text of the Constitution. Within conservative circles, this is something that is not fringe, and is growing in prominence.”

However, the vast majority of legal scholars disagree with this legal interpretation.

Haley’s family history

It’s true that Haley’s parents weren’t US citizens when she was born in Bamberg, South Carolina. They were Indian citizens. But they later became naturalized US citizens.

Regardless, this is irrelevant to the question of Haley’s status as a natural-born citizen.

“It has long been accepted that anyone born on United States soil is a natural-born citizen of the United States entitled to serve as President,” said Rick Hasen, a leading election law scholar and a professor at the UCLA School of Law. “Although some anti-immigration forces have sought to change this rule, the question is not in legal doubt.”

Election officials in Illinois, Indiana and New Hampshire examined these questions in 2016 when they were raised against Sen. Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada, and Sen. Marco Rubio, who was also born on US soil to non-citizen parents from Cuba. The officials rejected these challenges filed against Cruz and Rubio, on the basis that the GOP senators were natural-born citizens.

‘Birther’ smears over the years

This is one of Trump’s go-to attacks on the campaign trail.

He has stirred this up in the previous three presidential cycles, with Trump targeting political opponents – all of whom were minorities – based on their foreign connections.

He championed racist lies about former President Barack Obama’s citizenship during the 2012 presidential campaign, falsely suggesting that Obama was born in Kenya.

Trump did it again against Cruz when they were both vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, because Cruz was born in Canada.

And in 2020, Trump promoted false claims about then-Senator Kamala Harris’ eligibility to serve as vice president. Like Haley, Harris was born in the US to immigrant parents.

Obama, Cruz, and Harris were all fully eligible to serve – despite Trump’s false claims.

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