Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wait, Remind Me . . . What's Written on The Statue of Liberty Again?

In the wake of ISIS-led terrorism, the refugee crisis, and politicians yammering on with unconscionable, asinine cruelty about turning away refugee families in need, I think it's worth remembering a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and inscribed on the pedestal of that gift from France--the Statue of Liberty--in 1903. 

The poem, called The New Colossus, is a tribute to the millions of immigrant families who came to Ellis Island through the port of New York in the late nineteenth century, of which my family was one. Here's what it says:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Although I grew up in New York City, I only visited Ellis Island once: for a sixth grade history project. I stood there in awe like any other tourist; the sheer size and symbolic import of this monument was not lost even on a twelve year-old.

As the New York Times wrote in its editorial today, confusing refugees with terrorists--while "politically expedient"--is "morally unacceptable, and, as a matter of strategy, misguided." The world is confronting its greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and we didn't do such a great job saving the Jews from the Nazis back then either, let's recall. Now we have another chance to do the right thing with respect to people fleeing ISIS.

It's a stark affront to this country's values and fundamental principles to indulge bigotry; to refuse safe quarter to people fleeing unfathomable violence and turmoil around the world; to suggest that people should be subjected to religious "tests" as a condition of entry to America. This is the disgraceful response advanced by smug, crowing, self-proclaimed "patriots." And yet, it's quite literally the least patriotic response imaginable. 

Since 9/11, the U.S. has admitted almost 750,000 refugees. Not one--not a SINGLE ONE--has ever been arrested for (much less charged with) domestic terrorismImmigrants are an enormous asset to this country. They always have been, and they always will be. It would be a grave and unforgivable abdication of our democratic ideals--not to mention a breach of fundamental human rights--to turn our backs on Syrian refugees now. 

It remains to be seen whether America will honor the promise of the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, or whether those words will turn out to be as empty as the souls of politicians who would turn their backs on people like this:

 I'm still holding out hope for the former.

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