Who is an American?


Like many in this country, I have been thinking about who is an American. This is especially true since we have long been discussing migrants crossing the border to escape oppression and violence in their native countries, be they in Latin America or the Middle East.

Reducing or ending legal immigration, travel bans of those from countries deemed inferior or dangerous, and demonizing those who look different or have a culture distinct from our own, have been subjects of heated debate, but especially since the 2016 presidential campaign.

Here are some obvious and obscure facts of our history. As most people know, the founding generation were mostly comprised of descendants of Britain. Until the final break with the empire, many Americans considered themselves English deprived of their traditional English rights and liberties. Women rarely possessed any rights at all. The English common-law rule of coverture meant that a woman was subordinate to her husband, including her possessions and rights.

Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney confirmed the principle that slaves had no rights and no liberties in 1857 in the infamous Dred Scott case. He ruled that Scott, a slave seeking his freedom after his enslaver took him to a free state and territory, was not a citizen and had no right to file suit in a court of law.

After the Civil War and the ratification of the three major constitutional amendments guaranteeing freedom and equality to the now-liberated slaves, they and their descendants faced dreadful obstacles: from Jim Crow laws separating the races in schools, railway cars, housing, hotels, and everything else to the night riding Ku Klux Klan lynching of African Americans, stealing their possessions, and raping their wives and daughters.

Women and African Americans were not alone. The Know Nothing movement, beginning in 1855, was xenophobic and opposed immigration, period. It was also anti-Catholic and later called itself the American Party.

In 1882, for the first time Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act eliminating immigration of an entire ethnic group. It lasted until 1943 when Congress limited the immigration of Chinese to the United States to 105 per year. Later in 1882, Congress passed another measure that allowed immigration only from European countries.  

Several laws followed. In 1924, the Immigration Act restricted the numbers of those coming to the US from Southern and Eastern Europe. And why was this so? Because many members of Congress thought people from these areas were “stealing” jobs reserved for true Americans.  Sound familiar?  

During the Civil Rights Movement, in 1965, Congress passed a new immigration law allowing for family reunifications (what opponents call “chain migration that they wish to eliminate entirely) and attempting to attract skilled workers to the US.

As a free country, the United States has long had porous borders. No rational person would ever favor open borders allowing anyone who wishes to enter the country. We have a strict means by which foreigners earn permanent status (those with so-called green cards) and eventually citizenship. But the xenophobia surrounding those who seek refuge denies the very foundation of what America is supposed to be, as the National Anthem reminds us: “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”

The attempts to distort the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty carries us back to those days of the Know Nothings and proponents of an America reserved only for people with British and perhaps Northern European backgrounds. The words, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

For acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, Ken Cuccinelli, these words mean only those from Northern Europe who would never become a “public charge,” i.e., those who had enough money before they arrived to take care of themselves and remain off the public dole. It seems to me that the words are far more general than his crabbed interpretation.

Here’s a true story from my own life that illustrates the problem. My father once picked up my maternal grandmother, born in 1870 in southeastern Georgia, at the railroad station. She was hopping mad. Bear in mind, she grew up in the old Confederacy, though the war had ended but Reconstruction was in full bloom. Turns out that the conductor had seated her next to an African-American man. Her comment to my liberal New York, lower Manhattan-born father was, “Things are out of hand. The president of the United States should be doing something about this.”

Well, my father replied, no doubt with a bemused smile, given that Lyndon Johnson just then was pressuring Southern congressmen to agree to what the eventual Civil Rights Act of 1964,  “I assure you, he is doing something!” Of course, she preferred, like Cuccinelli, a return to an earlier moment in our history when the question of who is an American meant whites only.

Clearly, as a nation we must now move away from the ideas of my grandmother, who died in 1966 and become a welcoming nation, not one that snubs those whose culture and background are defined only as “the other.”


Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, is the author of American Constitutional History: A Brief Introduction, and most recently the third edition of his Supreme Court and Constitutional Law.