“What is a U.S. citizen?” author Jill Lepore rhetorically asks in her recent book. We still don’t have an answer.

There we were, standing and shivering in a long line along with dozens of other people, all waiting for the ferry to arrive. My wife Linda and I were in New York City and we were out to see the Statue of Liberty a couple of days before the new year.

Standing alongside us was a mom from Mexico who lives and works in the city and her two sons, who were visiting her from their home in the eastern state of Veracruz. In front of us were a German-speaking couple and their daughter. And along the snaking line were many others who looked very much like foreign visitors. Certainly we could overhear bits of Spanish, Chinese, French, Eastern European, Arabic and other languages.

And it struck me as beautiful and remarkable that a top tourist draw for foreign visitors is this country’s most visible symbol of liberty and the welcoming land of immigrants. And seeing the large number of foreign visitors and, I’m sure, foreign-born residents, also struck me as a repudiation of our current political and civil stagnation over the question of immigration.

Why would scores of foreign-born visitors wait in a line for up to an hour to see Lady Liberty? Why would foreign-born visitors continue to flock to New York City and other U.S. cities, knowing that the U.S. president is a xenophobe, whose administration has made clear its anti-foreigner, anti-immigrant policies and attitudes:

• a travel ban of residents from seven countries, five that are majority-Muslim, from entering the U.S.;

• cutting refugee admissions to the lowest level since 1980 when the resettlement program was born;

• separating asylum-seeking families, and the harsh detention of thousands of immigrant youths, primarily Central Americans, in ill-equipped and crowded detention centers in which two youths have died;

• cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for nearly 700,000 immigrants who were brought to this country as children;

• the termination of Temporary Protected Status for refugees from Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan;

• his reference to Haiti and some African countries as “shithole” countries.

The list is longer, of course.

The normalization of anti-immigrant and anti-foreigners is nothing new in our history. It’s as old as the country itself: the first major immigration law was the 1790 Naturalization Act — two years after the ratification of the Constitution — which allowed “free white people” of “good moral character” to become U.S. citizens after two years living in the country. It excluded people of color from eligibility for citizenship.

Into the 1800s a number of laws were enacted aimed at the unwanted and unwashed, leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that barred Chinese workers from immigrating and allowed for the expulsion of some Chinese laborers. In 1891, the first federal immigration agency was born and in 1924 the U.S. Border Patrol was created. And more and more immigration laws, many of them more restrictive and supported by nativist movements and elected officials, were enacted.

“What is a U.S. citizen?” author and historian Jill Lepore rhetorically asks in her insightful and comprehensive 2018 “These Truths: A History of the United States,” which has captured much of my free time in the past days.

“Before the Civil War and for rather a long time afterward, the government of the United States had no certain answer to that question,” she wrote.

We still don’t have an answer. Our country continues to struggle over the question of citizenship — who has it and who doesn’t, and who deserves it and who doesn’t. It is an explosive struggle that has polarized the country like no other issue, excluding the deep division created through the Civil War over the question of slavery and the lingering racism targeting black Americans.

While the nativist forces have been emboldened by President Trump, he is not the first and will not be the last to demonize immigrants, regardless of their legal status. But people will continue to come, beckoned by the promise of the Statue, bringing their positive contributions, skills and labor.

And why will they continue to come?

Said the Egyptian accountant cab driver when we asked him that question: “For freedom.”

Reach Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 573-4187 or netopjr@tucson.om.