On Tuesday, a day after the former vice president announced that the California senator would be his running mate, Newsweek ran an op-ed questioning Harris’ eligibility. The argument by John Eastman, a law professor at Chapman University and a failed GOP candidate, centers around the status of Harris’ parents.
“Her father was (and is) a Jamaican national, her mother was from India, and neither was a naturalized U.S. citizen at the time of Harris’ birth in 1964,” he wrote.
Harris’ parents met as graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley. Her father, an economist, immigrated from Jamaica; her mother, a cancer researcher, immigrated from India.
Harris was born in California and is therefore a U.S. citizen.
Another post that received a couple of thousand shares on Facebook also said Harris cannot become president if Biden is unable to serve out his term, because she is “an anchor baby, mother is from India, father is Jamaican, and neither were American citizens at time of her birth.”
The president of the right-wing group Judicial Watch tweeted Chapman’s piece, and it has been picked up by President Donald Trump’s campaign. Jenna Ellis, a senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign, retweeted that post.
“It’s an open question, and one I think Harris should answer so the American people know for sure she is eligible,” Ellis told ABC News.
And on Thursday afternoon, Trump himself leaned into the conspiracy.
“I heard it today, that she doesn’t meet the requirements,” Trump told reporters. He praised Chapman, saying, “the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified, very talented lawyer.”
It is not an open question. Harris is the first Black person to be nominated by a major party for vice president, and the first Asian American person to be nominated by a major party at all.
It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that the other person birthers went after was Barack Obama, the first Black president. Biden, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are not facing any such questions.
“One of the hallmarks of the U.S. Constitution, by virtue of the 14th Amendment, is that it directly grants citizenship to those born in the United States, regardless of the ancestry of their parents,” said Richard Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University School of Law.
He said that some countries directly grant citizenship based only on ancestry, but the United States does not.
“The U.S. follows the principle of ‘jus solis’ (citizenship flows from birth ‘on the soil’); the alternative is known as ‘jus sanguinis’ (citizenship flows from blood),” he added.
“Donald Trump was the national leader of the grotesque, racist birther movement with respect to President Obama and has sought to fuel racism and tear our nation apart on every single day of his presidency,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates. “So it’s unsurprising, but no less abhorrent, that as Trump makes a fool of himself straining to distract the American people from the horrific toll of his failed coronavirus response that his campaign and their allies would resort to wretched, demonstrably false lies in their pathetic desperation.”
Some birther conspiracies also popped up during Harris’ presidential run last year.
“I can’t believe people are making this idiotic comment,” Laurence Tribe, a Harvard University professor of constitutional law, told The Associated Press at the time. “She is a natural born citizen and there is no question about her eligibility to run.”
CNN host Chris Cuomo faced swift backlash after he seemed to suggest that Harris should prove her citizenship in order to rebut the criticism.
“And hopefully there will be no games where the issue keeps changing for righty accusers…and…the legit info abt Harris comes out to deal with the allegation ASAP. The longer there is no proof either way, the deeper the effect,” he wrote in a tweet.
Cuomo later deleted the post, saying his comments were misconstrued and Harris has “no duty to justify any such accusation, let alone a birtherism attack.”
Donald Trump Jr. also retweeted a post shared by a right-wing activist, which said Harris was not “an American Black” because she is “half Indian and half Jamaican.”
He later deleted it. A spokesman claimed that Trump Jr. hadn’t known that Harris was half-Indian, and that’s why he shared the tweet. At the time, Biden tweeted in Harris’ defense.
Birthers ― including Trump ― also went after Obama for years, arguing that he wasn’t a legitimate president. As with Harris, their claims had no basis in reality. They claimed he was born in Kenya (he was born in Hawaii) and insisted that his birth certificate was a forgery.
Dinesh D’Souza, a far-right political commentator and conspiracy theorist, also claimed on Fox News this week that Harris may not even truly be Black because her father had traced his ancestry to a slave owner.
Newsweek’s editors responded to the backlash they received for running Eastman’s piece in a note Thursday, claiming the piece was not racist at all.
“His essay has no connection whatsoever to so-called ‘birther-ism,’ 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,” wrote Nancy Cooper, the editor-in-chief, and Josh Hammer, the opinion editor. “We share our readers’ revulsion at those vile lies.”
This piece has been updated with Trump’s comments.