Who Gets to Belong?: Legacies of Inclusion and Exclusion
By Adam Strom and Carola Suárez-Orozco
Heated, and often, bigoted, discussion of immigration, migrants and the countries from which they have fled, have surfaced as a question that has been debated throughout U.S. history—”Who can be an American?”
Most everyone living in the United States can trace their legacy to another (or many other) land(s)–sometimes many generations ago but often within less than three. Indeed, immigration is a foundational narrative of our nation. Across our history, we have had both steady streams and waves of immigrants coming from countries from all over the world. They have always been met with ambivalence. Are they good for the country? Will they ever become part of the fabric of the nation? Are they “good enough?” These questions have implications for civic discourse, identity, and social belonging.
There have always been competing visions of who can (or should) be an American. The visions offer competing—inclusive or exclusive—versions of our national identity. The inclusive view of the relationship between American identity and immigration is probably best symbolized by the words “…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…” of the sonnet associated with the State of Liberty: The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. The poem was penned as part of a campaign to raise money for the base of the Statue that now sits in New York harbor.
Long before then, in another touchstone in the inclusive tradition, is George Washington’s eloquent letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. Washington wrote:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
As articulated in his now-famous letter, Washington’s vision of belonging explicitly moved beyond toleration of newcomers and religious minorities toward embracing them as full participants in society as long that they played by the rules.
The competing, exclusionary vision also has a long tradition. Writing in 1753, Benjamin Franklin complained that Pennsylvania was being overrun by German immigrants. He asked,“
“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
It should be noted that despite his concerns, Franklin explained,
I am not for refusing entirely to admit them into our Colonies: all that seems to be necessary is, to distribute them more equally, mix them with the English, establish English Schools where they are now too thick settled….I say I am not against the Admission of Germans in general, for they have their Virtues, their industry and frugality is exemplary; They are excellent husbandmen and contribute greatly to the improvement of a Country.
At the height of the great trans-Atlantic migration of a century ago, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland were often targeted by the media and politicians. Catholics and Jews were often flagged as both incapable and unwilling to join the fabric of the American nation.
The more exclusive vision of American identity and immigration might best be symbolized by the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay. Some scholars of immigration argue that while Ellis Island was a gateway to the United States, the purpose of the Angel Island Immigration station was to keep people out. The station itself was, in many ways, is the embodiment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first national law aimed at restricting entry for an entire group of people. (The law set a precedent for the 1924 Immigration and Naturalization Act which set quotas aimed at limiting the numbers of people from what were considered less desirable countries.)  The immigration station on Angel Island is more than a site of historical memory—its walls are a library of poetry written by those that were detained on the Island between 1910 and 1943, the majority of whom were of Chinese descent.
In Franklin’s equivocation, we are witness to the tension between inclusive and exclusive understandings of “what it means to be an American” that have been debated throughout our history. Indeed, variations of the questions are being asked and discussed around the world.
As educators, it is our responsibility to ensure that young people are equipped with both the knowledge and dispositions to participate in these essential civic discussions. We cannot let prejudice, myth, and misinformation stand in for facts and informed perspective taking. Moreover, as we teach, it is essential to make sure all of our students know that they are valued members of the community.
Below are a series of resources that you can use to help frame those lessons with your students:
- Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, http://www.libertystatepark.com/emma.htm
- Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Peter Collinson, http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-peter-collinson/
- George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, https://www.facinghistory.org/nobigotry/the-letters
- The Chinese Exclusion Act, https://reimaginingmigration.org/the-chinese-exclusion-act
- Their Story is Our Story, https://reimaginingmigration.org/their-story-is-our-story/
- A Conversation with Latinos on Race, https://reimaginingmigration.org/a-conversation-with-latinos-on-race/
- A Conversation with Asian Americans on Race, https://reimaginingmigration.org/a-conversation-with-latinos-on-race/
- Annie Moore and the Life of the First Ellis Island Immigrant, https://reimaginingmigration.org/annie-moore-and-the-life-of-the-first-ellis-island-immigrant/
- Detained on Ellis Island, https://reimaginingmigration.org/detained-on-ellis-island/
- U.S. Immigration Statistics Over Time, https://reimaginingmigration.org/u-s-immigration-statistics-over-time/
- From Immigrant to U.S. Citizen via Starbucks, https://reimaginingmigration.org/from-immigrant-to-u-s-citizen-via-starbucks/
- Assimilation, Integration, and Hyphenated Americans, https://reimaginingmigration.org/assimilation-integration-and-hyphenated-americans/
- Timeline of Major U.S. Immigration Laws, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/timeline-1790
- Yes, your ancestors probably did come here legally — because ‘illegal’ immigration is less than a century old, http://beta.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-jennings-legal-illegal-immigration-20180114-story.html
 While his words have to be tempered by the context in which he lived, and his relationship to slaves — forced migrants from Africa — their inherent power should not be discounted.
 Prior to 1924, there was no “illegal” immigration. If immigrants were excluded at Ellis Island, it was for health reasons.