a mighty woman with a torch
A subway ride gets us to Battery Park where we look at the soldiers’ and sailors’ memorials and wait for the ferry. Security is very tight. It takes airport-style checkpoints to get to the Statue of Liberty and officers with assault rifles preside over the screenings.
Miss Liberty is at her most photogenic with the blue skies and bright sun. Views are sensational across the harbor toward Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. In her pedestal, a museum houses the original torch and exhibits which explain her history and construction.
The statue is a national treasure. Consider the international friendship that inspired it. Consider the self-determination, and pursuit of happiness that it has always symbolized. Consider how many different languages we’ve heard on the subway this morning. Consider this quote from among the museum exhibits,
“You American Born can never imagine how we, we lived under all kinds of …isms, felt when we in the early hours of a very cold January morning saw you, The Statue of Liberty, to us meant real freedom. Thank God we made it!”
With these reflections in mind, I find it difficult to read the plaque with The New Colossus without getting a lump of national pride in my throat for what our nation has meant to the world.
I don’t know exactly when or why the Hartshorns, Vogts, Poduskas, Cravers or Congdons left their European homes to try their hands at a new life in a younger country. Some were here before the American Civil War, and others were still native speakers of other languages in the 1960s. On my wife’s side, it’s the same with the Sweets, the Seversens and the Bernards. Was it adventure, optimism, oppression or depression that caused them to board those boats? Their individual stories are lost, but those were my people, those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. If you live in North America today, unless you’re an indigenous person, they were probably your people, too.
There have been other waves of immigration in history and in my lifetime: the African slave trade stands out as a compelling story of it's own, and while the context is different, I think "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" applies to their struggle, too. There were the Vietnamese in the 1970s - we had some come to our school when I was in 3rd grade. Mrs. Nieman taught us a new word: “refugee”. Then the Bosnians came, and the Burmese and, of course, Mexicans. They’re all here in our community: peaceful, productive, learning to adapt to a new culture, and bringing some of theirs, too. Some are here legally, and there are plenty who are not.
Not too far away is a Mexican illegal who occasionally makes the news when the Feds visit and threaten him. Some readers won’t like that I’ve called him illegal, but the fact is that he came into this country without following immigration procedures, and that is against the law and it undermines the systems that are in place to guard our nation’s security. But at the same time, he’s a model American. He’s been here more than twenty years. He’s raised a family. He owns a business and in so doing, he provides jobs to others. He’s active in the community and in his children’s education … a good dad. Eleven million is a number we often hear associated with illegal immigrants from Mexico. If that’s accurate, I would gladly accept ten million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine more illegals just like him, because he embodies the American spirit better than a similar number of people who were born here.
Of course, not all Mexican illegals are rock stars like this guy. Some are trafficking narcotics, humans, or other contraband. Building a wall along that border was a campaign promise of President Trump, and a rallying cry of his supporters. Their point that we have no national security until we have control of our borders is not without merit.
Similarly, there has been concern that Islamic extremists may filter into our country along with refugees from the world’s trouble-spots. Last week, President Trump surprised us all with a virtual wall erected against people coming to the US from seven Muslim-majority nations. Those in favor of the immigration ban and those against it immediately flooded my social media feeds with “facts” that President Trump’s executive order was either mean-spirited and wholly unprecedented, or it was standard operating procedure for several previous administrations. Honestly, I don’t have the energy to wade through the vitriol - fact-checking all those pictures with big white letters on them.
It’s the president’s job to protect us. Sometimes that will mean saying “no”. Someone has to make those hard decisions. Someone has to enforce the law and it doesn’t seem illogical to shore-up the obvious weaknesses in our defenses. As a voter, I demand that the president take national security seriously, and yet, I’m conflicted about this. Around the world, the huddled are still massing - some are yearning to breathe free and some just don’t want to get shot at anymore. But, some of them wear those things on their heads and spell their names with letters we don’t know how to say, so we’re not quite sure that we can trust them.
As I think about immigration and walls and travel bans, I have to ask “what made us great to begin with?”. It wasn’t screw-you politics and it wasn’t isolationism. Maybe a better question is who made us great to begin with? Ours is a collected history of ambitious engineers, robber barons, industrialists, steadfast leaders, blowhards, small business dreamers, cowboys, miners, farmers, soldiers, slaves who eventually became free, and a whole lot of grunt laborers, many of whom were parts of those great waves of immigration: Chinese, Irish, Italians, Polish. They all came intending to build new lives for themselves and in so doing, they built the United States of America.
I go back to the poem in the museum under Miss Liberty’s feet to capture the spirit of who we are: a roll up your sleeves, git ‘er done nation where deplorables are free to speak, move about and pursue their happiness and their dreams. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Give us the ones who want to be here. Send them to us, and we’ll make something great. Again.
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
- Emma Lazarus