As America celebrates its 243rd birthday today, we are reminded that we are a nation of immigrants — and yet that nation and that notion are both under siege. Squalor at detention camps at the border. A Washington state judge subsequently ruling that asylum seekers can’t be kept in detention indefinitely — a Trumpian policy that has created the crisis. President Donald J. Trump — so good at the trappings of America’s birthday, with his tanks in Washington D.C. and his speech at the Lincoln Memorial — defiying the Supreme Court ruling that bars a citizenship question on the U.S. Census.
But it’s not just the United States. Israelis protest the police killing of an Ethiopian Israeli, an unarmed teen. The United Nations deplores the bombing of a Libyan refugee camp made up of sub-Saharan Africans. I just got back from Greece, where I can tell you the rank-and-file are definitely behind the Trumpian world view. They don’t want the burden of refugees.
What has happened to humanity? Throughout history, people have migrated — from Africa to Europe and Asia and then to the Americas. We are not merely a nation of immigrants. We are a world of immigrants. But the United States in particular, has been a beacon of hope for them. People forget, if they ever knew, that the Statue of Liberty was not intended as a symbol of immigration. The French gave Lady Liberty to America to mark the preservation of the union in the Civil War.
But in the decades that followed, Lady Liberty came to represent so much more, as crystallized by Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus,” inscribed on the base of the statue, which concludes:
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.
The problem is nowadays the tempest-tossed are usually people of color. I don’t like to play the race card, but it is a factor, as in the recent arrest of a pregnant black woman for the loss of the fetus she was carrying in a fight she started. Thank God Alabama has had the good sense to drop the charges.
Education, education: We need to educate ourselves. Ignorance breeds arrogance, fear and prejudice. We need to sharpen our critical thinking skills. But we don’t need just wisdom and knowledge. We need information. Why are people coming to our shores? Some are legitimately seeking refuge; others, economic opportunity. Only a small minority are looking to game the system or do harm. We need to hear their stories — Shakespeare said everyone has one — to separate the wheat from the chaff.
That’s going to take money and manpower that can be diverted from wall-building. Let smart technology — drones, cameras and computers — man the border, leaving people to interview new arrivals, just as the TSA handles airports.
Immigrants and their descendants have helped make this country great. But a country is only as great as the vulnerable it serves.