Wretched but Welcome — Holding Lady Liberty to Account

Nearly two decades ago I accompanied a friend to the remote village in Southern Mexico where she’d grown up. At 17, Graciela crossed illegally into the United States. This was her first trip home in ten years.

Over lunch one day, Graciela’s cousin, who happened to be the principal of the local school, told me how nearly every family in the village had at least one parent working in America. While U.S. dollars were flowing into the village, allowing for the purchase of material goods like screen doors and stoves, many of the families buying these items, he said, were tearing apart at the seams.

After lunch, Graciela and her cousin gave me a tour of the village, pointing out the homes of families that had a relative working in America. I saw the new wood doors and window screens that a mother, away in California, had paid for with a housekeeping job. I heard about the electric stove that Ramon, a dishwasher in Chicago, had purchased for his parents. I saw the house a father named Victor paid to have built for his family with money he earned working in Milwaukee. Victor’s mother told me, through tears, that he had never seen the home.

Then I met Angel and Angelica, an octogenarian couple who had no children and so no one to provide for them from afar or even up close. Standing in the entryway of the couple’s mud and twig shack, I saw no refrigerator, television or screened window. Then again, what would be the use of such things? The couple had no running water or electricity. To their fellow villagers, Angel and Angelica served as a daily reminder of what life would be like for those — not only without family — but a family without employment ties to America.

Later, I watched Graciela weep as the town band played a song for her about family members forced to go across the border. I realized the truly heavy heart Mexicans like her bring to America. I understood then, the United States is not so much a land of plenty as it is one of last resort for desperate immigrants like Graciela and her fellow villagers.

Back home, in the comfort of my California kitchen, I tried to imagine what I would do if I lived in rural Mexico? If I had to leave my family and cross a dangerous border to find a job, any job, to support them? What if I couldn’t see them for months or years? How it would feel — day after day — to live and work in a country that would quietly and gladly accept your cheap labor while at the same time condemning and even despising you for the illegal act of desperation that landed you on their doorstep.

It was unimaginable then. It is unimaginable now.

Flash forward to today where once again, I find myself standing in the kitchen, conjuring the image of yet another immigrant face — this time Syrian. Though I have yet to personally meet a Syrian refugee, I’ve read enough about their plight to picture the desperate circumstances that would land them on America’s doorstep — at the mercy of my jittery countrymen.

Our next president has promised to restore integrity to our immigration system and prioritize the interests of Americans. By definition, the word integrity suggests honor, good character and a strong moral principle — which means any immigration reform championed by our new president should endeavor to honorably balance the interests of Americans with humanity at large.

Our nation’s moral objective in so far as immigrants go — including refugees — is clearly stated on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “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-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

If those words, taken from Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus sonnet, are no longer relevant, then someone needs to change them. Otherwise, let the words stand knowing that America is on the record for its humanity and its mercy.