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Who Is Included in "We the People?" The Answer has Always Been Complicated

Jacob Riis
Ludlow Street Tenement, New York City, circa 1889

This program originally aired in June 2018.

What does it mean to be “an American?” How has that identity changed over the decades?


This hour, host Ben Kieffer talks with presidential historian Tim Walch and Rene Rocha, director of the Latino Studies department at the University of Iowa, about the history of immigration policy in the U.S.


“[Throughout history,] there are periods of tension against every group that have arrived that are different from the model or the norm, which is White Anglo-Saxon males from Great Britain,” says Walch.


“‘We the People’ didn’t include Native Americans. Nor did it include African Americans, nor did it include women,” says Walch. “So the initial foundation of our country is not as expansive and aspirational as we might say.”


As Irish and German migrants moved into big cities in the early 19th century, Walch notes, people became wary of cultural and linguistic differences and saw them as a threat to their image of a “typical American citizen.”


The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, that suspended the immigration of Chinese people for ten years, was one of the first federal restrictions implemented on migration. Before that, immigration into the country was regulated by state governments.


Closely tied to changing migration law are concerns about job opportunities. Many felt that Chinese migrants, who built the transcontinental railroad and worked in agricultural roles, took work from people already living in the U.S., Walch says.


Economic competition is still a concern today, though Rocha says that economists have not found negative correlations between the wages of a native-born worker and the presence of a large immigrant labor force.


“So the question is...[why] are you seeing that resentment build amongst this group misattributing their conditions to these groups?” says Rocha.


Walch points to how exclusionary policies contradict with the ideal of freedom upheld by the country’s Founding Fathers.


“How rare is it for a country to face a problem of too many people wanting to come to the country, as opposed to countries where people are trying to escape tyranny and oppression?” says Walch. “We are the country that is the beacon of hope…[immigrants] are seeing that lamp by the golden door that the Statue of Liberty has.”



Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River