‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Those words warmly welcomed millions to America through New York Harbor in the 20th century. They were meant to show the world that the United States was a welcoming haven for people seeking a better life.
Recently, I experienced the majesty and emotion of Emma Lazarus’ poem when I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
It was bittersweet because not long before that visit I witnessed the awful results of the Trump administration’s war on refugees and immigrants. I saw it in the eyes of a young Honduran father, who along with his pregnant wife, 15-year-old daughter and 5 year-old son, arrived at the border over a month ago as refugees.
The Department of Homeland Security decided in its infinite wisdom to immediately deport his wife and daughter back to Honduras. But they allowed him and his son to enter. It makes no sense! Try to imagine the pain and fear this family experienced (and continues to experience) being torn apart like that.
At the border this gentleman received an appointment letter telling him to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Des Moines on a specific day last month. As a volunteer at the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City, I agreed to drive him and his little boy to the appointment. I hoped to help him navigate the process and lessen the fear and anxiety he was likely to experience.
When we got there we put the form he had been given in the box identified for them and took a seat. After nearly an hour, a guard told us that we were in the wrong place. Then, after trudging to the correct location, we were told that there were no ICE check-ins that day and to return the following week.
What? Really? Is this the way we want to treat people fleeing for their lives?
Compounding his genuine fear that he might be in trouble and possibly deported for missing the meeting, I was not going to be available the following week. But this man did the best he could to remain calm for his son.
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Let me just say that visiting Lady Liberty and Ellis Island in the wake of that was quite eye-opening and jarring.
I know that America has not always been the most hospitable place for people in difficult circumstances. During and after World War II we turned away Jews fleeing persecution and death. We put Japanese Americans into internment camps for fear of them being enemies. We passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Now we reject Muslims fearing they are terrorists. On our southern border we refuse entry to refugees fleeing from persecution and almost certain death in their home countries.
Our new “acting” head of immigration recently added a corollary to the Statue of Liberty’s inscription. He said that we should not allow anyone into our country who cannot support themselves without assistance upon arrival. That is fear-driven, bigoted, and anti-American. This is not how we ought to treat “tired, poor and huddled masses” fleeing with the clothes on their backs. Who could possibly be expected to be self sufficient in those circumstances?
Friends tell me that immigration should be done the legal way. But there appears to be no legal way to seek asylum, especially when the Administration keeps changing the rules to make them ever more draconian. We separate families; we take children away; we deport people to Mexico to await hearings; and we build walls.
I believe that we must work together, renew civil discourse, and fully embrace our humanity. We need to worry less about the Second Amendment in this country and more about the Second Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I can’t stop what’s happening alone. But if l do nothing, to combat it, l am complicit in this punitive and hellish system.
So, I try to make it just a little easier for a father and son and others like him as they attempt to follow the rules and make a better life. That’s all it takes. If each of us did a little bit to live up to Ms. Lazarus’ beautiful words, America could again be a beacon of hope for people around the world.
Ann Houlahan of Coralville is a volunteer at the Catholic Worker House.