Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Crisis at the Border Is Also Close to Home

"The New Colossus"
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                             Emma Lazarus, 1883

Emma Lazarus’ poem is not in the Bible, but it is sacred scripture just the same. For Americans, it is one of our most sacred texts. It stands engraved on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, greeting those who enter New York harbor with a clear declaration of what America is all about. Children memorize it in grade school and adults treasure those words throughout their lives.

Emma Lazarus was born on July 22, 1849, one hundred and sixty-five years ago this week. She was the fourth of seven children born to Moses Lazarus and Esther Nathan, Sephardic Jews whose families had come to New York from Portugal in colonial times. She was a supporter of Henry George, one of the great reformers of the Social Gospel era and she was deeply committed to the poor and the outcast. She was widely recognized for her poetry, but she died on November 19, 1887, long before her poem was dedicated as part of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Last Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick invoked the spirit of Emma Lazarus in his emotional announcement of a plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of the children who have come to the United States in the past several months. The Governor made reference to our historic commitment to giving “sanctuary to desperate children for centuries.” He went on to say that he is haunted by our refusal in 1939 to accept a ship filled with Jewish children desperately trying to escape the Nazis. We turned them away and many perished in the Holocaust. Fighting back tears, Patrick made reference to a passage in Deuteronomy, “My faith teaches,” he said, “that if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself.”

In Governor Patrick’s plan, the children would be housed either at Westover Air Base in Chicopee or at Joint Base on Cape Cod. After considering the options, Joint Base, formerly known as Camp Edwards has been selected as the preferred location.

Last night, on Emma Lazarus’ birthday, the Selectmen in the Town of Bourne, my hometown, met to respond to the Governor’s proposal to temporarily house the children on the base, which is largely in the Bourne. George Brennan, reporting for CapeCodonline, writes: “The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick opposing the use of Joint Base Cape Cod to house unaccompanied immigrant children, citing the potential financial effects and strain on emergency services.” According to Brennan, those who packed the hearing room were overwhelmingly against housing the children.

Sadly, the Selectmen in Bourne are just a microcosm of America. We see it on the news reports every night. Grown men and women carrying American flags, some with their faces painted in red, white and blue, shouting at scared children, “Go home!” “Not my problem!” “No way, Jose!”

It is ironic that on the birthday of Emma Lazarus, we have decided that we do not want to be the country she believed we were.

When I was a child, growing up in the Bourne school system, no one told me about how badly we had treated immigrants. I grew up with the vision of a lamp beside the golden door and I was proud of that vision. Later, when I learned a very different and more painful history, I was reassured by the belief that even if we had failed in the past to live up to our vision, that vision would call us forward. If we had not always been the country we should have been, we would do better in the future. And I believed that there was a broad consensus among us that, as Martin Luther King said, we would live up to our promise.

Even now, when I am well aware of the human capacity for evil, I am shocked by our response to the children at our borders. In the long term, as citizens of the world, we know (or we should know) that borders are just lines on a map. This is a global issue and it will require a global solution. But in the short term, we need to “welcome the stranger.”

If we were erecting the Statue of Liberty today, would we affix a plaque calling her the “Mother of Exiles”?

"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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

In a parable about the final judgment, Jesus said that the righteous will ask, "Lord, when did w see you a stranger and welcome you?" And the Lord will answer, "When you welcomed the least of these my sisters and brothers, you welcomed me."

1 comment:

  1. So proud of the Governor, so frustrated with the people in Bourne. I, too, thought we were better than that, at least in Massachusetts. --Nancy Smith