Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono had been in the upper house of Congress for only a few months in 2013 when her Senate colleagues began debating an immigration-reform bill — and whatever Hirono lacked in seniority, she more than made up for with a lived experience nothing like any of her 99 colleagues.
With the same level of ferocity that's become familiar to the entire nation in recent weeks during the Supreme Court nomination fight over Brett Kavanaugh, Hirono battled, albeit unsuccessfully, for an amendment that would create an immigration preference for close relatives of citizens who had suffered through extreme hardships.
For Hirono — a Democrat who will turn 71 three days before this November's election — the amendment wasn't solely based on abstract ideology but also on what really happened to her, her mom, her grandparents, and two siblings when they sought to flee her native Japan in the early 1950s, to get away from an abusive dad who was gambling away the family's money.
The future U.S. senator, her mother, and two of her siblings ultimately escaped Japan in the cramped steerage compartment of a Hawaii-bound ship, a journey made easier by the good fortune that Hirono's mother had been born in Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, and was thus determined to be a U.S. citizen. Without her 2013 proposal, Hirono told the Washington Post at the time, women fleeing hardships and abuse wouldn't be welcome to take refuge in America — meaning someone in the same situation as her own mom "never would have been able to come here."
Hirono — who became a naturalized citizen when Hawaii became a state in 1959 — was then, and still is, the only foreign-born immigrant serving in the Senate, but that's not the primary reason the first-term senator has become the unlikely breakout political star of 2018.
The blunt-speaking Hawaiian who cut her political teeth protesting the Vietnam War and reading Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in the 1960s is now a septuagenarian channeling the simmering rage of the #MeToo movement onto Capitol Hill. She is delighting her new followers with her no-more-(bleeps)-to-give attitude — like the stunning moment when she told a national TV audience that "I just want to say to the men in this country: Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing for a change."
But keener political watchers had already noticed Hirono as someone who not only rarely holds her tongue (she has openly referred to President Trump as "a liar") but who also brings a passion and a first-person perspective to issues like immigration or sexual abuse that many of the members of the mostly male, mostly white millionaires' club that is the U.S. Senate simply can't share.
When Obamacare was under attack from the GOP majority in 2017, Hirono spoke of both losing a sister to pneumonia at age 2 and her own recent battle with Stage 4 kidney cancer. "It's very hard for me to talk about this," Hirono told her Senate colleagues as her voice cracked. Ultimately, the health-care program was saved by one vote.
And yet despite the recent flood of accolades, her newfound political fan club, and a spike in appearances on cable TV, there is one thing you never hear about Hirono that you hear constantly about a dozen or so of her Democratic Senate colleagues — that she is a presidential contender. Sure, you could quibble about a half-dozen factors — her age and health, her small-state background, the fact that America has never elected a woman, let alone an Asian American — but the conversation can never even get to that point.
Mazie Hirono could never be president because the U.S. Constitution, as drafted here in Philadelphia in 1787, bars anyone who is not a "natural born citizen" from even running. That means not just Hirono but a raft of other immigrants who became naturalized citizens and then successful politicians — former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, or Democratic members of Congress like New York's Adriano Espaillat or Washington state's Pramila Jayapal — are denied a basic right shared by all other citizens: the right to dream of someday becoming president.
That begs a one-word response. Why?
Despite the near-biblical reverence that we grant the original Constitution, scholars say that 18th-century founders were mainly worried about a scenario — a foreign general like the Revolutionary fighters Lafayette of France or Baron de Steuben of Prussia being named commander-in-chief of the nascent nation's army — that's beyond implausible in 2018. What's more, the phrase natural-born citizen is so vague that we've had endless and somewhat pointless debates about whether citizens born to American parents on foreign soil, including John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Ted Cruz, are eligible to run. (And let's not even bring up the Barack Obama "birther" theory.)
But more important, the "natural born citizen" restriction no longer makes sense — not just because it creates two separate classes of citizen, but also because it overlooks the reality that naturalized citizens like Hirono are some of the best examples and most ferocious advocates for universal American values, from inclusion and equal rights to the value of hard work.
On the surface, University of Richmond law professor Kevin Walsh — former law clerk to the late archconservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — couldn't be any more different from the liberal Hirono. But in recent months, Walsh has been advocating for and even drafted a proposed constitutional amendment that would change Article 2, Section 1 to read that any "Citizen of the United States" is eligible to run for the White House if he or she is at least 35 years old and has lived here for 14 years (both current requirements).
"I think some of it goes to the issue of what it means to be an American," Walsh told me. He noted that — as is often the case with a religion — "converts" to U.S. citizenship are often the most enthusiastic advocates for its virtues, because for them becoming an American was a conscious choice. The law professor also sees the difficult act of enacting any constitutional amendment as a valuable political exercise in these otherwise divided times, writing that citizens and political leaders could "exercise self-government muscles that have atrophied from civic sloth."
The timing would certainly be impeccable. In 2018, dozens of foreign-born candidates — believed to be a record — are seeking elective offices ranging from Congress to local school boards. Many have been aided by groups such as New American Leaders that offer training for immigrant-leaders-turned-would-be-elected-officials on how to mobilize their communities and best tell their stories — with the goal of infusing America's political debate with the perspectives of its 41 million foreign-born citizens.
This November, Catalina Cruz — who came to America, undocumented, from Colombia at age 9 and became a U.S. citizen less than a decade ago — is poised to make history as the first "Dreamer" to win election to the New York State Assembly, representing a Queens neighborhood where she fights for the rights of immigrant labor. Just 35, Cruz is beginning her political odyssey in the nation that grants her any opportunity — except the opportunity to be president.
This week, it's hard to imagine a nation that seems practically on the brink of a civil war over one would-be Supreme Court pick somehow holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" to get a constitutional amendment over the huge hurdle of approval by three-quarters of the states, red and blue. Especially in a nation where about a third of the public is obsessed with building a huge wall on the southern border to keep different-looking people out, not with erecting a ladder for different-looking people to climb into the White House.