Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Immigration Perspective

"Give me your tired, your poor... "

Looking out from the southern tip of Manhattan I could make out the Statue of Liberty. That was as close as I got to this amazing gift from the French to the people of America. I have read about it and the memorable quote of Emma Lazarus:

"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!"

Most school children today know that sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was commissioned to design a sculpture to commemorate the centennial of the American Declaration of Independence. Friendship between the people of France and of the United States was greater in those days.

The Statue of Liberty that has welcomed immigrants in the harbor of New York City for 123 years is still a beacon of hope to the world's down-trodden. This in spite of recent anti-immigration events and disparaging remarks about our foreign friends. Such attitudes should be a concern for us as a nation proclaiming democracy, freedom and hope.

For example, such remarks as: "No more 'wretched refuse'." "The door might be golden but the insides are a mess: 'no vacancy'." "There is no room in this inn anymore." "Country's full, go to Canada." "Welfare checks don't go that far."

The question comes that if the Statue of Liberty, and all it represents, freedom, hope welcome to the foreigner, why are so many Americans no longer welcoming immigrants, who have helped build this country?

The West Coast has no Statue of Liberty. We once had laws that kept Asians out for a very long time. Unfortunately, today if your suntan is bit too brown, you are not welcomed with open arms. No great poems of hopes and dreams have ever been posted on the Rio Grande, El Paso, Nogales, or Tijuana.

This attitude against immigrants is in direct opposition to the closing words of the Emma Lazarus sonnet, "The New Colossus," which is on the Statue of Liberty.

Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" speaks of a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is imprisoned lightening, and her name Mother of Exiles. The last 35 words of the poem are those memorialized on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Emma was one of the most successful Jewish American authors in our history. Besides novels and poetry, she wrote strong essays protesting the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1880s and 1890s.

She had to deal with not only being a woman writer, but add to that the unequal treatment toward Jews. She was not a Zionist but wanted Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine.

Emma was born in 1849 into a wealthy family who traced their ancestry in America to before the Revolutionary War. They were Sephardic Jews. (These are descendants of Jews of Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Not always appreciated by the Jews of Eastern Europe and Germany.)

She had a strong classical education. Her talent for writing was noticed early and her father encouraged her efforts.

In a letter to a friend Emma wrote, "My own curiosity and interest are insatiable."

Emma Lazarus was a complex person, having wealth yet understanding and speaking out for the dispossessed, the less fortunate, and degrading life so many were forced to live.

During Emma's lifetime and immediately following, 1840s to 1930, the United States took about 60 percent of the world's immigrants. They were frequently exploited and often blamed for lowering wages and living standards; at the same time being accused of favoring formation of fairer labor laws.

Rather than blame today's foreigner, get the Immigration and Naturalization Department and the Border Patrol to use the laws we have. And make Congress find a way pay for it more realistically.

The century-long image of the United States being where people are free to begin a new life is unlike any in world history. Let's learn how to keep that image without ghettos, xenophobic spirit or another "white flight" away from reality.


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