Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Immigration and the Statue of Liberty

It could be said that resentment against foreigners is part of an innate fear of the unknown.  Those who study spousal abuse find that the abused fear what may happen more than what is happening.  When we find ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, we look twice at people we may not even notice if we were in our own environs.  New schools, new jobs, new relationships create stress in our lives.  We seek the familiar, and in that course we prefer our everyday encounters to be with people of similar color or race, religion or beliefs, political perspective, education level, economic status.  It is easier to relate to people like ourselves; conversely, it can create anxiety when we choose to or are forced into situations in which everything is new, and we are the stranger. 

(Quick note here, way to go Rachel, my daughter, who is in Australia for a semester abroad.  Not everyone is as brave or curious to commit to such a long visit away from home.  Perhaps it is a bit easier for young people, but it still requires a paradigm shift in thinking that is admirable, and a bit scary).

Choosing to travel, to live temporarily, or to move permanently to another place, whether for a job or an education, or a lover, is a difficult decision for most people.  Yet, it is still a choice that can be made or not made for most of us.  And, over time, those that move often or adopt travel and the desire to see the world as a hobby, their perception of the unknown evolves.  For them, and those who seem born without such a strong innate tendency, the fear of the unknown fades with each experience. 

In the era of forced desegregation, busing of children to other neighborhoods, the mingling of the races in public squares, there was considerable backlash.  Generations of indoctrination about the other race, institutionalized bigotry and fear, is not something that can be legislated away with the stroke of a pen.  Yet now, a mere 50 years later, our kids see other kids, not black kids or white kids.  Those that fall in love with someone of another race have a wedding, not an interracial wedding.  And, believe it or not, there will be a day when those that marry someone of the same gender will also call their union a wedding, not a gay wedding. 

Our constructs can and do change with experience.  We can desensitize ourselves to reacting with fear and mistrust, when we adopt a more inclusive viewpoint. 

It is not hard to find vicious attacks in the media of the time against the immigrants that came to America in the early 20th century.  Derogatory slang names abounded.  Areas of cities were "taken over" by those "people".  Signs in some business windows proclaimed that foreigners (not the word used) need not apply or that their business was not welcome.  The natives of the time who themselves were foreigners to the American Indian a few generations beforehand, were besides themselves with concern that the gene pool would be weakened by these non-English speaking groups.  Complaints that these new Americans would work for less, bred like rabbits, and brought customs and culture that might supplant "American" ideals, were rampant.  They were lazy, drank too much, and were mostly criminals. 

Of course, now, the customs and culture of the Italian, Irish, German, Polish, and other immigrants of that era are weaved intrinsically within our understanding of what makes America.  Eventually, our xenophobia was replaced with the realization that the vast majority of those people came to our shores in hopes of a better life.  We celebrate their contributions to our country and its ideals.

Currently, there is a presidential candidate who has adopted the prejudice that was demonstrated 100 years ago by those objecting to many of our ancestors.  He has demonized those that live south of our border in entirety, claiming that their only purpose in coming to America is crime and mayhem.  He has mined that innate fear of others for political gain, appealing to a base, irrational fear that chooses to be blind to the humanity of those who make the difficult decision to leave behind what is familiar and try a new path.  His ploy is not new, it is rife within the party he is trying to represent.  But he has taken it to a new level of malevolence.  His rhetoric belies the progress we made in eliminating the fear of those whose only goal is to seek freedom and opportunity.

The Statue of Liberty has a few lines from a poem written by Emma Lazarus called The New Colossus.  She wrote the poem, in part, to help raise money for the creation of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty where her lines now reside. 

The full poem is as follows

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!”

Such an ideal!  You may say it runs contrary to common sense, "keep ancient lands your storied
pomp, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".  Certainly a
different perspective than those offered by Ann Coulter in her recent book, and echoed by The
Donald.  I assume both would consider Lazarus's poem just so much liberal nonsense which is
ruining America.  "Wretched refuse of your teeming shore"?  Not on my watch, says Trump.

Immigration, illegal or otherwise is a complex issue.  Sound bites will not solve the problem.  One
country's immigrant is another's refugee, depending on which side of the border you are on.
Xenophobia should not be a policy or campaign platform.  Merging the ideals of the Statue of Liberty
with the practicality of a tide of people that stains the country's resources should be the basis of our
discussion.  If not, then perhaps we should melt down Lady Liberty (the Mother of Exiles) and stop p
pretending that we are the greatest country on earth.  

Can you imagine how we would handle a real immigration crisis like that which is occurring in
Europe?  Literally, millions of people are fleeing the war torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan, and
Iraq, flowing into Turkey, Greece and other border countries.  Talk about your "homeless, tempest-
tost"?   Those countries that are accepting these refugees must figure out how to shelter them in
extreme weather, provide water, food and sanitation, find host families within their country and the
rest of Europe, and then coordinate travel to those places.  

Those people, whose only crime was to be born in the wrong country in the wrong time are looking
for a place where 
"..our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning"

As a nation, do we prefer to epitomize the ideals behind The New Colossus, do we wish to make
concrete a "world-wide welcome" that Lady Liberty represents?  To say "I lift my lamp beside the
golden door" or are we content to be a nation hiding behind a closed gate with a machine gun? 

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