In recent years, probably no matter has split nationalist and populist conservatives from libertarian and anti-statist conservatives more than that of immigration.  Yet, very few conservatives are actually taking the time to debate or discuss this issue, so fundamental to understanding the very essence of who we are as an American people.  Too many suppositions and assumptions have taken on the air of truth, and, as such, and, if for no other reason, the topic itself demands good discussion and vigorous debate.  In particular, the modern American conservative should praise Gerald Russello and The University Bookman for its on-going symposium dealing the whole swirling mess.  We need much more of this.  It’s too important to leave to emotion or passion alone.

As Christians around the world celebrated the arrival of the Three Kings—the Magi of the Orient—on Epiphany, the president of the United States called for $33 billion to shore up America’s borders with $18 billion for the wall.  

Would the Magi have been admitted in 2018? “Excuse me, Balthasar, but I need to see that your papers are in order.  Oh, I’m sorry, but your gift of myrrh exceeds our 3.2 ounces of liquid allowed.”  

Perhaps, President Trump simply chose his timing poorly, but it would be impossible for the Christian to miss the irony.

As a professor of the western canon, the Great Ideas of the West, and the western tradition, I find it nearly impossible to claim that there is a long tradition of excluding those who “aren’t us.” Even the most cursory examination of the issue reveals that the best of western thinkers have considered political borders a form of selfish insanity and a violation of the dignity of the human person.  The free movement of peoples has not only been seen as a natural right throughout much of the western tradition, but it has also been seen as a sacred one.

In the gloriously pagan Odyssey,Odysseus survives, again and again, because the highest commandment of Zeus is to welcome the stranger and protect him with all that one has. To this day, one finds remnants of this tradition throughout the Mediterranean as the stranger is greeted with olive oil, bread, and, depending on the predominant religion of the region, wine. As staple crops of the ancient world, these signified not just acceptance but actual joy at the arrival of the stranger.  The god of the hearth stood as patron of the sojourner.

The Athenians, during the tumultuous fifth century before Christ, prided themselves on allowing not just the stranger into their communities, but also their very enemies in.  After all, what did the Athenians have to hide?  Why not expose the ignorant to truth?  Let the oppressed see how a free people live.

During the vast, long expanse of the Middle Ages, the Germanic peoples not only thought of themselves as residents of their own little piece of Middle-earth (Midgard), but they also thought of themselves as citizens of what King Alfred the Great labeled Christendom, the Christiana res publica, as well as believing themselves sojourners en route to the City of God. What Christian could allow—in good conscience—the accidents of birth such as gender or skin tone in this Veil of Tears to trump the possibilities of eternal salvation in the next?  Neither Greek nor Jew, neither male nor female. . . .

Nothing in Christendom better represented the ideals of the free movement of peoples than did the Great Charter of 1215, forced upon King John at Runnymede.  Though points 1 and 63 of the Magna Carta demanded freedom of the Church from political interference, points 41 and 42 reveal how fundamental the movement of peoples is to the sanctity of the common law.

  1. All merchants shall have safe and secure exit from England, and entry to England, with the right to tarry there and to move about as well by land as by water, for buying and selling by the ancient and right customs, quit from all evil tolls, except (in time of war) such merchants as are of the land at war with us. And if such are found in our land at the beginning of the war, they shall be detained, without injury to their bodies or goods, until information be received by us, or by our chief justiciar, how the merchants of our land found in the land at war with us are treated; and if our men are safe there, the others shall be safe in our land.
  2. It shall be lawful in future for anyone (excepting always those imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the kingdom, and natives of any country at war with us, and merchants, who shall be treated as if above provided) to leave our kingdom and to return, safe and secure by land and water, except for a short period in time of war, on grounds of public policy- reserving always the allegiance due to us.

If we accept the Magna Carta as one of the most important documents in the history of western civilization, we Americans cannot afford to ignore it, its intent, or its specifics.  Common law demanded that a people—and the person—move freely, border or not. Even in time of war, the enemy must be treated with dignity.  

Equally important, can we American afford to ignore that the pagans, such as Odysseus, as well as the Christians, such as King Alfred, stood alike for the free movement of peoples and the welcoming of the stranger? To this day, the Roman Catholic Church, following the Hebraic Decalogue, teaches: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.” To be sure, the immigrant must fulfill his or her duty as a citizen as well.

As an American conservative, I am not suggesting that we should surrender our own free will to the dictates of the past or even to any one religion, but I do think we would be foolish beyond measure to ignore the advice of our ancestors. And, for what it’s worth, the best of our ancestors believed in the free movement of peoples.

When it comes to the specifically American tradition of immigration and the free movements of peoples, the issue becomes more complicated.  

Imagine for a moment that the great waves of immigration never came to America.  In the colonial period, among those who freely chose to cross the Atlantic, you would have to dismiss the Anglicans to Virginia, the Puritans to New England, the Quakers to Pennsylvania, and the Scotch-Irish. Of the unfree peoples, you would have to take out all of those of African origin. In the 1840s, remove the Germans, the Scandinavians, and the Irish.  In the 1880s through the 1910s, remove all Greeks, Poles, Jews, Italians. . . .  

Yes, the native American Indian population would be justly celebrating, but, overall, and, from any relatively objective view, there would be no America.

Between 1801 and 1924—with the critical exception of the Chinese and the Japanese—no peoples were barred from entry into the United States.  Congress forbade further Chinese immigration in 1882, and a gentleman’s agreement ended Japanese immigration in 1905. Otherwise, until 1921 and 1924, any person of any continent, of any religion, of either gender, of any skin color, or any other accident of birth could enter the United States and take up residency the very day of arrival.  Only those with known criminal records or those suffering from tuberculosis were turned away.  

Unless you are a full-blooded American Indian (less than one percent of the present United States population), you, American reader, would not be here without some ancestor having immigrated—freely or by force—to the United States. And possibly from what one might crassly dismiss as a “sh-hole country.”

Thus, our ancestors not only expressed their favor of the freedom of movement among peoples in their writings and laws, but when,] push came to shove, they also voted with their feet.

Since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, we Americans have surrendered not just our liberties but our very souls to the false notion and false comfort of governmentally-provided security.  Tellingly, we have even closed off what was once the freest and longest border in the history of the world, our border with our extremely kind and polite neighbor to the north, Canada.

Again, I am not suggesting we must be slaves to the past, nor am I suggesting that we should dismiss the legitimate security concerns of a sovereign people.  But, as an America people, we came into being because of the free movement of peoples.  We rebelled against the designs of the 18th-century British, and we mocked the 19th-century Europeans and their passports and border guards.  

Now, we seem to have become them.  

If we continue to build walls around our country, really, then, just who are we?  Only in the last generation or so have so many American conservatives become convinced of the necessity of the vast array of restrictions on those who wish to become a part of the United States.  Perhaps they are right, but, regardless, there is much to discuss.

Bradley J. Birzer is the president of the American Ideas Institute, which publishes TAC. He holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in History at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Russell Kirk: American Conservative.