COLUMBUS, Ohio — Vivek Ramaswamy often touts his family’s immigration and naturalization story on the campaign trail in promoting two controversial policy ideas: stripping citizenship from and deporting people born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant parents and taking away voting rights from 18- to 24-year-olds unless they pass a civics test.
“I think there’s no reason why every high school student who graduated in this country should not have to pass the same civics test that an immigrant, like my parents, had to pass in order to become a citizen of this country,” he told Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Iowa State Fair in August.
In a sit-down interview Tuesday, Ramaswamy noted that his father is not a U.S. citizen and never took the test. “He did not. And that’s a choice that he has made for familial reasons,” Ramaswamy said.
“But my mother did,” he continued, explaining that she took the test and completed the process after he was born. “And I think that every immigrant who comes to this country in order to become a full voting citizen has to do the same.”
The story cuts to the center of a campaign full of off-the-cuff speaking and attention-grabbing, aggressive policy proposals that go further than past Republican presidential administrations have deemed possible — or even legal. The proposal that young voters should take a civics test first, for example, runs right into the 26th Amendment of the Constitution: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
And Ramaswamy has been especially passionate about the controversial idea of ending access to birthright citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants. That has long been guaranteed under the 14th Amendment, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
Ramaswamy, 38, was born in the U.S. to two noncitizens, which means he gained citizenship through birthright, though he noted that his parents immigrated to the country legally.
“I want to be very clear about this. I think that birthright citizenship does not and should not apply to the kids of parents who entered this country illegally,” Ramaswamy added.
“Here’s the policy we’re going to apply — this is where I’ve been clear — the kid of illegal immigrants and the families who came here undocumented have to be returned to their country of origin,” he said.
Asked whether the plan includes U.S. citizens who have ever lived only in this country, Ramaswamy said yes.
“You become president, that 25-year-old, 30-year-old that was born to undocumented immigrants, their parents and they themselves are deported — to say they’re from Venezuela they all go back just to Venezuela?” NBC News asked.
Ramaswamy agreed, acknowledging that it would be a shocking change. And when NBC News pressed Ramaswamy whether that would be “a cold turkey rip” for people who might have lived, worked and paid taxes in the U.S. their entire lives under rights granted by the 14th Amendment, he replied, “It has to be.”
But he added that he would support a path back to citizenship “through legal meritocratic immigration.”
“This can’t be a system that unfairly penalizes those who are waiting in line to enter this country legally, with the illegal migration that we have wrongfully allowed in this country. And I acknowledge that will not be easy,” he said.
Recently, Ramaswamy has been tweaking the line he uses on the campaign trail about his parents’ experience in the U.S.
At a campaign stop in Contoocook, New Hampshire, this month, he said, “I think every high school kid graduating from high school should pass the same civics test that our parents had to pass to become immigrants of — voting citizens in this country.”
And at a different campaign stop in Laconia, New Hampshire, he said, “I think every 12th grader who graduates from high school should have to pass the same civics test that every immigrant has to pass — Apoorva’s parents, my parents had to pass.”
Ramaswamy’s wife, Apoorva, immigrated to the U.S. from India when she was 4 years old. He said her parents took the citizenship test after they immigrated to the country.
Later on the day of the Contoocook event, Ramaswamy changed the line, saying, “Every kid who graduates from high school should have to pass the same civics test that my own mother, that every immigrant, has to pass in order to become a citizen of this country.”
The experience of campaigning for the first time
Ramaswamy has jumped in front of more seasoned politicians in polls, but he is still well behind former President Donald Trump in the GOP primaries. Still, he said he’s not tied to the results of the 2024 election.
“I don’t relish the idea of being the next president. I’ve come to realize that more through this process,” he said, adding that as he has spent more time on the campaign trail, he has learned a lot more about the nature of the presidency. “I don’t even personally view it as an enjoyable job,” he said.
But he said he and his family are campaigning because he feels they have a duty to a country that has given them so much.
Much of the campaign has featured Ramaswamy making controversial news, from his comments about 9/11 to his calling Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., a “modern wizard of the modern KKK.”
“I know it’s going to be controversial. So I think it is healthy for our country to have open, radically honest and candid conversations.” he said.
Speaking to reporters in Newton, Iowa, last month, Ramaswamy told NBC News that his responses during the question-and-answer parts of his forums are often not thought out: “I’m honestly answering … off the cuff.”
NBC News pressed Ramaswamy about his demeanor in the interview: “How much do you mean what you say?”
“On the things that matter, I am sharing my honest and true convictions,” he replied. But he added, “Not everything I say is a policy priority.”
One of those priorities is abortion, about which Ramaswamy is one of the few candidates in the Republican primaries who has outlined a clear position — and he also thinks the GOP has missed a huge opportunity by dancing around clear policies. He calls himself “unapologetically pro-life” but favors laws made at the state level, not a national policy enacted by the federal government.
“It does not have to be nearly as divisive as it has been if we bring from contraception to adoption to child care to sexual responsibility for men into the conversation, as well,” Ramaswamy said.
“And so — I’m not guided, I haven’t poll-tested any of that,” he added. “This isn’t a focus group ‘how would we talk about the issue’ point. It’s a substantive point. … Let’s walk the walk with respect to being pro-life.”