Unless you are Native American, if you live in the United States you are either descended from immigrants or are an immigrant yourself. And unless you are, say, purely descended from the inhabitants of the Mayflower, at one time or another you or your ancestors were probably unfairly maligned, feared, discriminated against, or even openly persecuted for being outsiders. A good number of our forebears were either brought here against their will or were fleeing atrocities overseas.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to commemorate the end of slavery and the centennial of the American democratic experiment. To help raise money for the base of the statue, Emma Lazarus, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Portugal, wrote a poem contrasting the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, which she likened to a giant conquerer, with the “Mother of Exiles”:
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!”
We, as Americans, have fallen short of these ideals time and again, most commonly because of misplaced fear. For just one example from many, in the days after Holocaust Remembrance Day, it’s worth remembering that we turned away thousands of Jewish refugees, many of whom were ultimately killed by the Nazis, because of misguided fear that they were Nazi spies.
If only we were all as brave as the immigrants and refugees who left everything behind for the beacon of liberty.