America has always been a nation of immigrants. We have heard that line often in recent years — sometimes in support of essentially open borders. And guess what? It's true.
But this isn't the only truth about American immigration. There have been surges and pauses in immigration over the decades, expansions and restrictions. Assimilation takes time.
What's also true is that even a nation of immigrants ought to be able to determine how many and who are permitted to enter and stay. All nations ought to permit anyone to leave.
Meanwhile, there exists an American ethos that has much to do with the principles of the American founding. There is an American way of life that arises from our unique history. Over the course of our history immigrants have always learned a good deal about both. It's a necessary part of assimilation.
And in the process immigrants can also be teachers.
"You Americans have no idea what you have here." Those very words were spoken to me in heavily accented English roughly a half century ago. They jolted me at the time and have often come back to mind. The speaker was a new American who also happened to be my first landlord.
A refugee from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, my landlord had made it to Minnesota as a DP (displaced person) sometime after the 1948 Soviet takeover of his country. He had "made it" in America by buying, renting and selling older homes.
His real estate dealings eventually included selling me a house, which was just a few blocks from what is now George Floyd Square.
It was not my first experience with a Czech immigrant. Early in the Cold War my parents provided a new home for a young woman who had escaped from Czechoslovakia. Marcella was delighted and grateful to be here.
A piece of her story has remained with me. Cigarettes were the medium of exchange with those arranging her escape. Caught in a train station dragnet with a suitcase full of her contraband, she managed to sweet-talk her way out of being searched before beginning her journey to a new life in central Minnesota.
Years later, in 1992, while I was teaching in Hungary, my family took a side trip to Prague, where my daughter and I spent an unforgettable afternoon with yet another Czech immigrant, Joe Mestenhauser of the University of Minnesota. A longtime family friend, Mestenhauser had returned to his home country for the first time since his own escape in 1948.
We took a walking tour of central Prague, while he recounted details of his harrowing departure. Afterward, he confided to us that only since his return to Czechoslovakia had he come to realize that he truly was an American.
The clincher for him had been telling his Czech students of the opportunities America offered only to have them dismiss his words as little more than support for American greed. Shaking his head at their response, he lamented that their "brainwashing" would take generations to remove.
One more Cold War story. My Hungarian experience indirectly led me to meet the late Peter Schramm of Ashland University where he headed the Ashbrook Center. Schramm was barely 10 when he fled with his parents during the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. When we had occasion to meet, he gave me a copy of his essay/memoir, titled "Born an American but In the Wrong Place."
His ticket to what proved to be his right place was indirectly provided by a dentist from Hermosa Beach, Calif. Sometime in the early 1950s the dentist's car broke down somewhere in Hungary. Schramm's father happened along, stopped, and managed to repair the car. Would he accept payment? No, but he did take the dentist's card.
Now slightly fast forward to 1956 and a refugee encampment in Austria where the Schramm family was being quizzed by an American official. Did they have family in America? No. Friends in America? No again. At that point his mother retrieved the dentist's card from her purse.
Peter Schramm went on to become a southern Californian, a college professor, and an unabashed American patriot.
In some respects his serendipitous story is no doubt quite like the stories of immigrant students, Uber drivers and coffee shop devotees of my recent acquaintance. None of them have repeated the unforgettable words of my landlord, or composed essays on becoming Americans, but many of them might well have had similar thoughts while building similar lives.
On the other hand, nowadays not a few might be thinking very different thoughts — or at least might be encouraged to do so. After all, America isn't quite the same place that greeted my landlord. One of the differences is that America isn't necessarily held in high esteem by those living here, including those who favor mass immigration.
It's curious that those who most favor open borders often seem to regard this country as a benighted place in great need of a fundamental transformation.
And immigrants, whether legal or otherwise? They may be as relieved and delighted as Marcella. But are they as grateful? Or has gratitude given way to a sense of entitlement? After all, how could an in-place welfare state for all comers not encourage such a sense?
It's certainly possible to have a very liberal immigration policy. It's also possible to have a comprehensive welfare state for all who happen to live here. But both?
And yet, for generations the United States has been a beacon of liberty both here and elsewhere. For my landlord, for Marcella, for Joe Mestenhauser and for Peter Schramm, that beacon became a reality.
Today many on the left regard this country not as a beacon of liberty, but as just another oppressor state. My landlord wouldn't really be surprised. He might see them as just the latest incarnation of Americans who have no idea what we have here.
John C. "Chuck" Chalberg taught at Normandale Community College and writes from Bloomington. An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Imaginative Conservative.