When The Statue of Liberty was under construction, the young American writer Emma Lazarus was asked to compose a poem that could be auctioned off as a fundraiser for the building of its pedestal.
The result was her sonnet, The New Colossus, evoking the plight of immigrants struggling to build new lives in a country that valued the human spirit, no matter its national origins. And for me, her words take on new significance as I watch the migrant caravan of thousands fleeing violence in Central America in hopes of finding asylum here.
Some see the caravan as a threat to our national security. But all I see are mothers, fathers and children who have trudged for weeks through grinding heat, many with only the clothes on their backs and wearing cheap plastic flip-flops. I see little of the invader in them, yet in our current climate of intolerance, others have apparently forsaken charity and welcome for nationalism and fear.
Of course, fear mongering isn’t new; demagogues have used it through the ages to sway public opinion and sweep them to power. Many parts of the world have experienced pogroms and genocide, complete with walls and barbed wire. But it seems many of us are quite capable of living in a state of collective amnesia, thinking it couldn’t happen again – especially not here in an open society fueled by the contributions of immigrants.
But just last month, eleven Jewish people died at the hand of an American anti-semite as they attended services in their synagogue. And I found it especially discouraging that among them was a 97-year-old survivor of the Holocaust, one of the worst crimes of humanity ever recorded.
Since 1883 the words of Emma Lazarus have spoken of hope where there had been none – have spoken to those fleeing violence, poverty and political repression. They addressed the tired and poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” promising a great lamp beside a golden door.
How ironic then, that the writer herself was descended from among the first Jewish immigrants to the United States.
As children, most of us knew these words by heart. As adults, we need to remember them.