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Why doesn't Mitt Romney consider himself Mexican American?

Mitt Romney, March 2010
Mitt Romney, March 2010
Photo by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Much has been made over whether or Mitt Romney is Mexican American, and if he were to win the White House, whether he'd be the nation's first Mexican American president. But this week, when questioned about it, the Republican presidential candidate made clear where he stands on his identity.

"I don’t think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I was Mexican-American," said Romney, whose father was born in Mexico, to Univision's Jorge Ramos in an interview, although he joked that he wouldn't mind being perceived that way by Latino voters.

So is he or isn't he? Some have argued that simply due to his father's (and grandfather's) birthplace, Romney qualifies as Mexican American. But his lineage is a complicated one, made so in part by long-ago laws that governed citizenship in Mexico.

Romney's late father, former Michigan governor George Romney, made no bones about being from Mexico, which he left in 1912 with his parents as part of the northbound exodus to the United States that occurred during the Mexican Revolution:

"My parents were driven out of old Mexico when I was only five," the elder Romney said in front of news cameras decades ago. "My people were revolutionary refugees. They had to be fed by the United States government and housed by the United States government. I know what poverty is. I've been up through it."

Simple enough, no? But unlike many others fleeing north, George Romney, a descendant of Mormon settlers from the U.S., was already an American citizen when he and his family arrived here. From a transcript of the Univision interview, here's how Mitt Romney explained it:
" dad was born in Mexico, and I am proud of my heritage. But he was born of U.S. citizens who were living in Mexico at the time, and was not Hispanic. He never spoke Spanish, nor did his parents. So I can’t claim that honor."

There's an interesting history behind the elder Romney's U.S. citizenship. The laws governing citizenship in Mexico changed a few times during the 19th century as Mexico tried to fend off foreign occupiers, including the United States, to which Mexico lost a vast swath of territory in the Mexican-American War. At the time, foreign settlers were seen as a threat.

So for much of the 19th century and into the early 20th, Mexico abided by versions of jus sanguinis citizenship, Latin for "right of blood," with birthright citizenship only granted to children born to citizens of Mexico. In 2005, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies published an article describing Mexico's evolving citizenship laws and the thinking behind them:

...the shift to exclusive jus sanguinis in 1857 was a nationalistic repudiation of foreigners and their offspring who had supported the interventions of foreign states in Mexico in the early years of independence. The three states that have occupied Mexico (Spain, France and the United States) have also been important sources of foreign immigration...

The immigration of US colonists to Mexico’s northern provinces ended in the disastrous 1836 and 1846-48 wars in which Mexico lost half its territory and approximately 100,000 Mexican residents.

Jus sanguinis was what was on the books at the time Romney's great-grandfather arrived in the Mexican state of Chihuahua in the 1880s, part of a group of Mormons who left the U.S. to escape American anti-polygamy laws. Romney's grandfather was born in Mexico, but to a foreign national, so he wasn't a Mexican citizen. And, accordingly, neither was his son.

It was not until 1917, five years after young George Romney and his parents fled the revolution, that Mexico's new constitution codified birthright, or jus soli ("right of soil)" citizenship, which both Mexico and the United States abide by today. Still, the fact that the elder Romney was born in Mexico raised questions about whether he was qualified to run for president as a "natural born citizen," a requirement for candidates, when he attempted a run for the White House in 1968.

The story of Mitt Romney's Mexican roots takes on special relevance in light of the continuing U.S. debate over birthright citizenship, which heated up last year. Turning it on its head, how might the same family history apply to the Mexican-born great-grandchild of a Mexican family that moved to the United States, stayed for three generations, but remained Mexican citizens?

How would such a person identify in Mexico if his or her father was born in the United States, but had remained a Mexican citizen? Would he or she be considered as American Mexican?

The debate over whether or not Romney is truly Mexican American, and how he should identify, is understandable. He joked in his interview with Ramos, “I would love to be able to convince people of that, particularly in a Florida primary,” adding, “But I think that might be disingenuous."