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Mother of Exiles

2012/07/03

For some time now, even before 9/11, I’ve been hearing groups of people complaining about the immigration policies in America. Recently, I’ve seen people using comparisons between Mexican immigration policies and American ones, and it’s given me reason to pause. And being the kind of person I am, it’s also given me the impetus to do a little research.

Now, first and foremost, let me state, for those who may not be informed, the United States of America was founded on the ideals of providing a safe place for its people to enjoy “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And from its founding, it was setup to be a nation of immigrants and citizens, with its first laws determining exactly how a person would be deemed a citizen. The immigration and naturalization of citizens has always been at the heart of the United States of America.

A great symbol of our immigrant nature is the Statue of Liberty. The French law professor and politician, Édouard René de Laboulaye acted as the genesis behind this legendary event in our world history, when, during an after dinner conversation, he is purported to have said, “If a monument should rise in the United States, as a memorial to their independence, I should think it only natural if it were built by united effort—a common work of both our nations.” The Statue of Liberty was exactly that. Through the turbulent years of the mid to late 19th century, this monument to liberty and freedom was forged with French and American hands, to stand as a beacon to all who arrive here on our shores, testifying to the ideals upon which we were founded.

Built with the idea of the Colossus of Rhodes in mind, Lady Liberty solemnly stands atop the island once named Bedloe’s Island (aptly renamed Liberty Island upon her installation), welcoming all who enter New York Harbor. But even before completion, she was the source of great hope and inspiration. The poet and activist Emma Lazarus was called upon to donate an original work in order to aid with the fundraising which was necessary to build the monument. At first though, the poet felt it was impossible to write a poem about a statue, let alone one that had not even been built yet. But as she worked to aid the poverty stricken and oppressed Eastern European immigrants who sought out the freedoms and promises of a life in America, she found her inspiration. The poem, “The New Colossus,” was sold at an auction to raise money for the statue’s pedestal in 1883, and it quickly became the battle cry for all future efforts to complete the monument. In 1903, sixteen years after the poet’s death, this poem was inscribed on a bronze plaque and installed at the pedestal as a memorial. Her words speak volumes about the true meaning behind this monument to liberty and to hope:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “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!”
-Emma Lazarus, 1883

This alone, were it to stand at any other harbor, shining the light of that country’s promises of freedom to the world, would bring me clamoring to break free of whatever plight I might be suffering. How can you doubt the desire to come here when such monuments of liberty exist? And how can you sit in your home on these precious lands of freedom and now say, “NO! It’s not for you! This freedom is just for me, and you can’t come in!?”

The truth of the matter is that we are all immigrants. This sacred land is no man’s natural home, not even the so-called Native Americans. We all came here, in various ways, seeking a new world, a new chance, a new life, filled with the hopes and dreams of a lifetime of struggle.  I am here today because the people who came here during the colonial period welcomed immigrants from foreign lands, allowing the Germans and the Swedes to emigrate here, to work hard and to help them build a better country for us all. The last time anyone in my family was an immigrant was nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and yet, I know immigration works, because it forces us to break out of complacency, it creates a broader understanding of the world, and it blesses us with a rich and diverse heritage.

And so, when I see people complaining about how lax our immigration policies are compared to other countries I have to say, “THANK GOODNESS!” Thank goodness I live in a country that welcomes all, a country that protects the freedoms of its citizens better than any other country in the world, a country which goes out of its way to make sure everyone can participate in their community, and a country where people WANT to come to experience all the glorious liberties we have been blessed to know.

The United States of America isn’t the example of what NOT to do with immigration, it is a shining testimony of freedom and inclusion and diversity, and exactly why we are able to overcome all the hardships placed in our path. America is an ideal which has to be worked for, not simply endured. We possess a volunteer, citizen military. Our government is elected from its citizens, served by its citizens and a benefit to its citizens by CHOICE, not at the end of a gun. I must CHOOSE to be an American Citizen, through my votes, through my civil action, and through my service to this country and its ideals.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
The Declaration of Independence 

When we declared our intention to dissolve our association with the British Crown in 1776, it was said, quite clearly, that we did so joined as one, and with the consent of all. But there is something else in that declaration which is vitally important to this matter of immigration. Of our many grievances with the Crown, did you know among them was a matter of immigration?

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
The Declaration of Independence 

Those people demanding tighter immigration laws, wanting to close our borders with armed militia, and reducing us to a military state, claim it is through their patriotism they make these demands. But right in the most sacred of our country’s texts is a claim that we are so opposed to such a mandate, that we used it as a justification to dissolve our responsibility to the Crown. So, that being the case, and the basis for our country’s founding, would that make these so-called patriots actually British Loyalists? In my opinion, if one is using a text for the basis of an argument, one should read the entire text, not just the Cliff’s Notes version given to them by someone else. Experience has taught me that it’s always better to go to the source material, especially when dealing with complicated issues. Too many times, the “summary” is skewed by the personal perspective and bias of the summarizer.

For another perspective on this topic, let’s try The Constitution of the United States:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Constitution of the United States 

Wow… I get goosebumps every time I read that passage. A government which places the justice, tranquility, defense, and welfare of its citizens in such high esteem that it makes sure from the very start those things are stated in clear and concise terms. I am also struck by the phrase, “a more perfect union.” Not a perfect union, but a more perfect one, as though the founding fathers knew we could never achieve perfection, but they were going to ensure they did their best, not just for themselves, but for “our posterity” as well. These were not men on a mission from God, ordained by the Almighty to dispense order by Divine Right of birth…these were men, many of means, who worked hard to build up communities, and whose only wish was to bring justice and peace to their descendants. This had never been done before, and more than two hundred years later, their “more perfect union” still stands.

All of those amazing things do make us a target. A target for people wanting what we have in America. But as with all immigrants, they also want to remember that from which they came, in order to appreciate all they have gained, and it is that desire which appears to cause the most alarm in people currently residing in the United States of America. With comments ranging from “that damn music” to “that towel must be wrapped a little too tight” and “keep a close watch on your dog around them,” I have born witness to so much isolationist behavior and closeted racism in the name of immigration opposition, it makes me sick. Even as I write this piece, my head is pounding from the ideas of people, who are supposed to be my equals, passing off poisonous hatred as political rhetoric.

I have known many immigrants in my lifetime, who have worked harder, given more, and gone farther than those born in America who take for granted the liberty other people fight like hell to attain. One can be an American, without being a citizen of America, just as someone born to Jewish parents will always be considered Jewish, regardless of their religious practices. There may be hundreds of millions of Americans, but I know there are far fewer American Citizens. An American Citizen is one who will not just take the oath of citizenship proudly, but will also live by it. If you were born here, you never have to take that oath, or any other, for that matter. You are blessed with the randomness of geographical birth, to partake in the freedoms others work hard to maintain, when you are born an American. The freedom to work hard, to succeed, to promote the welfare of your fellow man, and the freedom to do nothing, to spout hatred and spread discontent, and to complain about the people who come here in the hopes of earning those same liberties.

The only thing I can do to combat this poison is to continue to be a good citizen, casting my votes, supporting charitable causes, defending my country through word, thought, and deed, and to always remember that no matter how much hate and anger is tossed around like confetti, in my heart I am a proud American Citizen who believes in the ideals of this country, and I will do anything in my power to insure those freedoms, that glorious liberty, is available to all who are willing to work for it, the same as me.

Dedicated to…

Carl August F. Pettersson
Louisa Arabella Schwab
Conrad Schwab
Hans Philip Sinsabaugh
Everhardt TeVehne
Gerhard Schmitz
Johanna Bernadina Üffing

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