Symposium: Citizen, Community, and Welcoming the Stranger

by Bradley J. Birzer

I’m not sure when it became a “conservative” thing to oppose relatively open borders and the free migrations of peoples, especially those seeking freedom from totalitarian and fundamentalist regimes. From my earliest memories in the early 1970s, I heard the stories of my ancestors on both sides of my family coming to America, escaping the depressed economy of Bavaria in the late 1880s (the Birzers and the Johannings) and the oppression of Tzar Alexander II in the mid 1870s (the Basgalls and Kuhns).

My maternal grandmother, though third-generation American and the oldest daughter of seventeen children, did not speak English until well into adulthood, and her foods and habits remained deeply and fundamentally Russian-German to the end of her fruitful and lovely days in 2003. Indeed, she not only never lost her accent or her ability to distinguish pronouns properly in English, but she also retained her peasant good humor and serious fortitude to the end. She was also the best cook I’ve ever known. A devout Catholic, she even died in her bed, saying the Lord’s Prayer with my mother and the parish priest. She was a profoundly great woman, the kind of person who has made American work and has provided the backbone to its stability. Her husband, my mom’s dad, Wendelin E (no period) Basgall, was the finest and most dignified man I ever had the privilege of knowing. He was a teacher, a migrant worker, a short-order cook, a state congressman, and a genius with all things mechanical and financial.

I know that the story of my family is not only not unique, but it is, at some very important level, the story of every single non-native American. Even including native Americans, there is not a single human walking on the soil of the United States as I type this who either personally or whose ancestors did not originate elsewhere.

As David Hackett Fisher has so dutifully noted, the four free migrations of the 1620s through the 1760s and the nasty and brutal fifth migration of unfree peoples make up what would become the entire population of the earliest part of the American Republic. From roughly 1801 until the first major restrictions in 1921 and 1924 and then again in 1964 and 1965, America had some of the freest borders in the world. With the exception of the Chinese by law, beginning in 1882, and the Japanese by informal agreement, beginning in 1905, any person the world over—black, white, male, female, Greek, Jew, etc.—could arrive on American soil and take up permanent residence provided no criminal record and no tuberculosis. Give me your tired, indeed.

When Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams put it best: “The American Republic invites nobody to come. We will keep out nobody. Arrivals will suffer no disadvantages as aliens. But they can expect no advantages either. Native-born and foreign-bornface equal opportunities. What happens to them depends entirely on their individual ability and exertions and on good fortune.”


Of course, Adams was drawing upon ancient traditions. Pick up any edition or translation of the Odyssey and note how many times homeless Odysseus is given shelter because Zeus, not only the greatest of gods but the patron of hospitality, demands that one treats a guest with the greatest of honor.

Or, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the common-law tradition of welcoming those traveling through English lands, even during times of war. Here, for example, are points 41 and 42 of the Magna Carta:

(41) All merchants may enter or leave England unharmed and without fear, and may stay or travel within it, by land or water, for purposes of trade, free from all illegal exactions, in accordance with ancient and lawful customs. This, however, does not apply in time of war to merchants from a country that is at war with us. Any such merchants found in our country at the outbreak of war shall be detained without injury to their persons or property, until we or our chief justice have discovered how our own merchants are being treated in the country at war with us. If our own merchants are safe they shall be safe too.

(42) In future it shall be lawful for any man to leave and return to our kingdom unharmed and without fear, by land or water, preserving his allegiance to us, except in time of war, for some short period, for the common benefit of the realm. People that have been imprisoned or outlawed in accordance with the law of the land, people from a country that is at war with us, and merchants—who shall be dealt with as stated above—are excepted from this provision.

Whether it is good or bad on my part, I simply have a difficult time criticizing immigrants and those who want to immigrate for a whole host of reasons, but especially because of the immigrants I know and have seen in my life. They are some of the best and most inspiring persons I’ve ever met or ever will meet.

The same is true when I travel to any area of the country that contains large numbers of recent immigrants (legal or otherwise) from Mexico and Latin American, whom I do not know. But, as I observe them from a rather impersonal distance, I can only see extremely hard-working, family-tight, and devout persons who make us and themselves better. Except for the slightly dark skin color (in most but not all cases), I see people who easily could’ve been my great grandparents and their children only a short time—by the long standards of history—ago.

When my mother’s side first arrived in Ellis County, Kansas, in 1876, the several Hays newspapers mocked them to the nth degree. The Hays City Sentinel, in its biweekly events column, wrote that “A big Russian was reposing upon the depot platform while his frau was patiently picking the vermin from his head.” They also reported that the “Russians” walked with pointed toes and that they resembled aborigines for they “… seldom change garments, eat with their fingers from the same dish; and their cooking is done in an exceedingly primitive style.” One article entitled “The New Comers” discussed the smell of the new immigrants. “Their presence is unmistakable; for where they are there is also something else,—a smell so pungent and potent as to make a strong man weak.” They also stated that they “seriously object to having our streets turned into manure heaps and a depository of filth of all kinds.”

Soon, though, the local papers had to eat crow. “Since our last issue we have made a visit to the Russian settlement on the North Fork of Big Creek, and find that our article of last week, estimating these industrious people as a most valuable acquisition to Ellis County, was none too high. They have taken off their coats and gone to work as though they had come to not only stay, but to make themselves comfortable and the hitherto untrodden fields of the Great American Desert blossom with the rich harvests known best to Kansas farmers.”

I began this short piece by noting that I’m not exactly sure when it became a norm for conservatives to favor restrictive borders. I can, however, note with certainty that the entire American progressive movement began with a wickedly and maliciously WASPish and nationalist fear of immigrants and a desire to yank the hyphen out of hyphenated Americans. One prominent progressive, E. A. Ross, described what he considered the horrors of southern and Eastern Europeans (Catholics and Jews) entering in such vast numbers in the 1900s and 1910s. Here’s a rather tame example of what was commonly believed by the progressives:

These oxlike men are descendants of those who always stayed behind.… To the practiced eye, the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type. I have seen gatherings of the foreign dashboard in which narrow and sloping floor heads were the rule. The shortness and smallness of the crania were very noticeable. There was much facial asymmetry. Among the women, beauty, aside from the fleeting, epidermal bloom of girlhood, was quite lacking. In every face there was something wrong—lipstick, mouth course, upper lip too long, cheek–bones too high, chin poorly formed, the bridge of the nose hollowed, the base of the nose tilted, or else the whole face prognathous. There were so many sugar–loaf heads, moon–faces, slit mouths, lantern–jaws, and goose–bill noses that one might imagine a malicious jinn had amused himself by casting human beings in a set of skew–molds discarded by the Creator. [E. A. Ross, The Old World in the New, 1914].

Believe what you want, but when I hear conservatives who want to build walls, deport aliens, and prevent further immigration to these United States, I can’t help but think how sad it is that the modern conservative has become no better than the horrific progressive. I’ll stand, I think, over there, with the “depository of filth.” I like their attitudes much better. 

Bradley J. Birzer is the Russell Amos Kirk Chair and professor of American studies at Hillsdale College. He is also co-founder and senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.