Immigration and Citizenship: Ancient Lessons for the American People

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Americans have been debating immigration since the Founding era.  Congress passed the first Naturalization Law in 1790, which it amended and fine-tuned in 1795, 1798, and 1802.  These acts experimented with different residency requirements before naturalization.  From the start, children of U.S. citizens were citizens, even if born abroad.  For the Founders, where citizenship was concerned, family trumped place of birth.

Today, economic considerations dominate arguments on immigration.  For some people America is a cash cow to fund their project of eliminating “economic injustice.”  They like to quote Emma Lazarus’s poem placed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor long after its dedication, which, they believe, establishes a fundamental human right to immigrate to the United States.  The state should provide free or inexpensive food, healthcare, schooling, and contraception to all residents of the landmass arbitrarily called the United States of America.

Others wish to restrict immigration to those who can contribute to the nation’s economy.  For them America is a business driven by profit.  Her mission is encouraging intelligent and hardworking individuals to grow rich by risk-taking and innovation.  They then have the right to use their newly acquired wealth as they see fit.

There is another way to view economics, trade, and immigration.  In this view, nations are spiritual and cultural realities, made up of families and communities that shape the individuals who participate in them.  A national economy, including immigration, is not an end in itself.  It is a means to support family, community, congregation, and nation.

Economic considerations often drown out the voices of those who value family and nation.  It was, therefore, encouraging to see Hillsdale professor Bradley J. Birzer reframe the debate on the basis of culture and tradition at the website of The American Conservative (“Bring on the Conservative Debate for Immigration”):

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.

Birzer is right to argue on the basis of the wisdom of tradition, but the Western political tradition suggests different conclusions from the ones he draws.

Birzer’s first example of those who would be kept out of the U.S. by restricting immigration is the Three Magi of Matthew 2.  The President announced plans for protecting our borders on Epiphany 2017.  Birzer comments, “Perhaps, President Trump simply chose his timing poorly, but it would be impossible for the Christian to miss the irony.”  I for one missed the irony of trying to restore the rule of law in the U.S. on Epiphany.  The Magi went directly to King Herod to tell him of their star-led search for the new King of the Jews.  He gave them expert advice.  They then found the Babe in Bethlehem and promptly left Herod’s domain.  The Magi were not immigrants, and certainly not illegal immigrants. 

Birzer balances Christian with pagan sources by discussing Homer’s Odyssey, since Odysseus survives “because the highest commandment of Zeus is to welcome the stranger and protect him with all that one has.”  The Odyssey’s narrative begins with Zeus denouncing Aegisthus for seducing Clytemnestra and murdering her husband.  His speech and its location in the poem recall the Old Testament commandments “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Odysseus spends the first and most memorable half of the poem trying to get home.  He is not an immigrant.

Birzer then introduces ancient Athens into the debate.

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.

Birzer is referring to a passage from Pericles’ Funeral Oration in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War:

In the practice of military affairs we differ from our opponents.  We keep our city open to all and never, by expelling foreigners, prevent anyone from either learning or observing what our enemies might profit from, if they saw it unconcealed.

Athens’ rivals, the Spartans, who also belong to the Western tradition, regularly expelled foreigners from their city.  The Greeks had a word for it: xenelasia.  Athenians rejected this custom, but this decision had nothing to do with their attitude toward immigration and naturalization.

Athens did not easily grant citizenship to non-Athenians.  In 451-450 b.c. the Athenian assembly passed a new citizenship law, proposed by the great democrat Pericles.  This law restricted the older custom by which any child of an Athenian father could claim Athenian citizenship.

Pericles’ law created one pathway to Athenian citizenship: being born to two Athenian citizens.  Citizenship was the ordinary Athenian’s most valuable possession, as American citizenship is for most Americans.  There is a different spirit among America’s elites today.  For them American citizenship is a commodity to be handed out to as many people as possible with no historical, cultural, or even religious connection with the historic American people.

The Athenian assembly did on occasion award citizenship to non-Athenians for special services to Athens, but these awards were few and far between.  During the Peloponnesian War the assembly granted citizenship to the allied people of Pla taea after their city was razed by the Spartans.  This was an unusual wartime measure.  When Pericles’ legitimate children died in the plague near the start of the war, the assembly gave citizenship to his son with his Milesian mistress, Aspasia, to preserve his family line.  For the most part, however, the people of Athens jealously restricted access to citizenship.

The tradition of distinguishing citizens from noncitizens, “us” from “not us,” can be traced to the Periclean democracy of the fifth century b.c.  When the Athenian democracy of the fifth century passed Pericles’ Citizenship Law, did it exhibit “a form of selfish insanity”?  Did it violate “the dignity of the human person”?

Birzer skips over Roman history, which offers instructive models of extending citizenship while maintaining its integrity.  As Rome’s hegemony over Italy grew, its leaders looked for ways to assimilate the people of Italy to Roman ideals and standards.  Inter alia Romans created a ladder to citizenship, which offered non-Roman communities the social advantages of the Roman way of life, e.g., marriage and trade (connubium et commercium), before granting the political right to vote (suffragium).  As historian H.H. Scullard notes, “This device of ‘half-citizenship’ proved a very valuable training in civic responsibility.”  The political rights of citizenship, such as the vote, were granted first to community leaders who had been elected to the local senate.  This created a kind of vetting, as we say nowadays.  Eventually, an entire town might be granted full citizenship.  Over time, Italy became a patchwork of towns of Roman citizens next to other towns where only the elite were Roman citizens, while ordinary folk were not.  Moreover, the Greek cities of Italy remained allies of Rome but preserved their own cultural and political traditions.

Romans expanded Roman citizenship prudently while acknowledging that assimilation to their way of life required time, sometimes generations.  This system eventually spread all over the Roman Empire, but the distinction between Roman citizens and non-Romans survived for centuries.  We see this in the different experiences of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament.  Jesus was treated unfairly, but not illegally.  As a non-Roman He had no right of appeal from the decision of a Roman procurator.  As soon as Paul made good his claim to Roman citizenship, the authorities protected him and sent him at public expense to Rome, where he could make his appeal to Caesar.

Birzer moves from Greece to England.  He says Odysseus and King Alfred “stood alike for the free movement of peoples and the welcoming of the stranger.”  Odysseus returned from his wanderings to find his wife besieged by 108 suitors, who were devouring his goods and sleeping with his maidservants.  They were foreigners, except for 12 from Ithaca.  With the help of his son and two loyal servants, Odysseus killed all 108.  King Alfred spent much of his life driving Danish invaders out of his country, Wessex.  The substantial cultural accomplishments of his reign had to wait until he had restricted the free movement of Vikings to the Danelaw and expelled them from Wessex.

The last stage in Birzer’s tour through Western civilization is the Magna Carta.

Nothing in Christendom better represented the ideals of the free movement of peoples than did the Great Charter of 1215. . . . 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.

Birzer quotes two clauses, which protect the free movement of merchants (41) and “anyone” (42), with reasonable exceptions.  Things have not changed.  Foreigners are welcome to visit the United States for business, study, or tourism.  Then they return home.  They have no claim to legal residency or citizenship.

Clause 51 of the Magna Carta reads, “And immediately after restoring peace, we shall remove from the realm all alien knights, crossbowmen, sergeants and mercenaries who have come with horses and arms to the injury of the realm.”  The Magna Carta has no constitutional status in the U.S., any more than Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” but “one of the most important documents in the history of western civilization” mandates the mass deportation of armed and dangerous aliens, like MS-13 and other violent gangs.

Birzer often echoes libertarians.  He writes, “Imagine for a moment that the great waves of immigration never came to America. . . . [O]verall, and, from any relatively objective view, there would be no America.”  Free-trader Brian Domitrovic writes in “On The Border, The GOP Is Outraged At The Wrong Thing” (published by both Forbes and The Imaginative Conservative, to which Birzer often contributes), “America is nothing—certainly not the best country in the world or the last best hope of earth or anything like that—without profound economic growth and a big openness to immigration.”  Is it true that without immigration “America is nothing” and “there would be no America”? 

Birzer’s argument depends on counting America’s early English colonists as immigrants, people who move to an existing society in order to join that society.  As Samuel Huntington argued in Who Are We? (2004), arguably the most important conservative book of this century, the English who moved from England to the New World were not immigrants, but settlers.  They had no intention of assimilating to an existing society, but of founding a new one on the basis of their English and European traditions, which is what they proceeded to do.

America’s success as a nation rests on a paradox noted by Alexis de Tocqueville: “America was a new country.  However the people who inhabited it had elsewhere made a long use of freedom.”  Americans who have never read Tocqueville understand this instinctively.  There is no America without the living traditions that the early settlers brought with them from England.  The sources of these traditions are ancient: the Common Law, the Bible, and the Classical Tradition.  From these sources come the ancient ideals of citizenship, the rule of law, and ordered liberty that link America to Israel, Greece, Rome, and England, but which Americans developed in distinctive ways.

Americans are free and creative not because of free trade and immigration, not because we inhabit “a new nation . . . dedicated to [a] proposition,” but because America was founded on ancient traditions that Americans developed in ways different from countries in Europe and also from the other cultures of the New World, like Mexico, Brazil, or Quebec.  This is what General MacArthur meant in his last speech at West Point when he called America “this beloved land of culture and ancient descent.”

For Brad Birzer, “the best of our ancestors believed in the free movement of peoples.”  Tell that to the Roman legions who guarded the Rhine and Danube against barbarian invasion.  The best of our ancestors believed in the ancient traditions of citizenship and the rule of law.  We stand with them.

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