I just returned from a rousing discussion put on by my church on immigration. It is a contentious issue, and one that I have very mixed feelings (and opinions) about.

I won’t belabor the argument here, but I am starting to think that those who feel the immigration dilemma most (and hence are most equipped to solve it) do so because they understand the pragmatic optimism surrounding the human condition that seems to exist within the American ethos. The government is acting to preserve the rule of law, while immigrants are seeking to better their lifestyle. They are, in this case, two seemingly incommensurate goods.

Of course, all of that is really a preface (and an unrelated one at that) to this humorous story from G.K. Chesterton’s trip to America. For those who accuse the American government of being lackadaisical in its defense of the borders, there may be some comfort in knowing that it could be–and, apparently has been–worse.

When I went to the American consulate to regularize my passports, I was capable of expecting the American consulate to be American. Embassies and consulates are by tradition like islands of the soil for which they stand; and I have often found the tradition corresponding to a truth. I have seen the unmistakable French official living on omelettes and a little wine and serving his sacred abstractions under the last palm-trees frying in a desert. In the heat and noise of quarreling Turks and Egyptians, I have come suddenly, as with the cool shock of his own shower-bath, on the listless amiability of the English gentleman. The officials I interviewed were very American, especially in being very polite; for whatever may have been the mood or meaning of Martin Chuzzlewit, I have always found Americans by far the politest people in the world. They put in my hands a form to be filled up, to all appearances like other forms I had filled up in other passport offices. But in reality it was very different from any form I had ever filled up in my life. At least it was a little like a freer form of the game called “Confessions” which my friends and I invented in our youth; an examination paper containing questions like, “If you saw a rhinoceros in the front garden, what would you do?” One of my friends, I remember, wrote, “Take the pledge.” But that is another story, and might bring Mr. Pussyfoot Johnson on the scene before his time.

One of the questions on the paper was, “Are you an anarchist?” To which a detached philosopher would naturally feel inclined to answer, “What the devil has that to do with you? Are you an atheist” along with some playful efforts to cross-examine the official about what constitutes atheist. Then there was the question, “Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?” Against this I should write, “I prefer to answer that question at the end of my tour and not the beginning.” The inquisitor, in his more than morbid curiosity, had then written down, “Are you a polygamist?” The answer to this is, “No such luck” or “Not such a fool,” according to our experience of the other sex. But perhaps a better answer would be that given to W. T. Stead when he circulated the rhetorical question, “Shall I slay my brother Boer”–the answer that ran, “Never interfere in family matters.” But among many things that amused me almost to the point of treating the form thus disrespectfully, the most amusing was the thought of the ruthless outlaw who should feel compelled to treat it respectfully. I like to think of the foreign desperado, seeking to slip into America with official papers under official protection, and sitting down to write with a beautiful gravity, “I am an anarchist. I hate you all and wish to destroy you.” Or, “I intend to subvert by force the government of the United States as soon as possible, sticking the long sheath-knife in my left trouser-pocket into your President at the earliest opportunity.” Or again, “Yes, I am a polygamist all right, and my forty-seven wives are accompanying me on the voyage disguised as secretaries.” There seems to be a certain simplicity of mind about these answers; and it is reassuring to know that anarchists and polygamists are so pure and good that the police have only to ask them questions and they are certain to tell no lies.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.