Monday, May 1, 2006

IMMIGRANT NATION

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores:
Send these--the homeless, tempest-tossed--to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” - posted at the Statue of Liberty

"We are ALL immigrants" - handmade sign at an immigrant rally

LOOKING FOR THE STATUE. The one thing I wanted to see--and wanted my family to see--as we flew into New York City for the first time was the Statue of Liberty. NYC has innumerable points of interest and import, but only one has been a part of my imagination from childhood: that copper-clad icon that lifts the blazing torch, welcoming heart-broken and hoping people of the world to the land of the free. What a view we had of Lady Liberty as our plane approached LaGuardia from the south and descended along the east side of Manhattan. Even before we touched down, my dream had been fulfilled.

HESITANT GIFT RECIPIENTS. Many know Lady Liberty was a generous gift of France for America’s 100th birthday, but few know there was trouble finding and funding a site for it. Neither Presidents nor Congress could see the validity of "wasting" tax dollars on it. So, Liberty Island, the foundation, and installation of the statue were eventually paid for by donations from children, families, service organizations and community groups. Of course, once it was erected and became the dominant symbol of America's spirit, the same short-sighted bureaucrats laid claim to its greatness. This part of the statue’s story is, to me, an ironic parable of America’s immigration story.

IMMIGRATION HAS NEVER BEEN EASY. Immigration has never been easy, neither for those who seek to immigrate to America, nor for the settled Americans who are called upon to make room in the established dynamics of economy, community, politics, religion, education, and social fabric. Some Americans have resisted immigration vehemently and violently, blaming it for everything from crime and moral decay to disease and poverty. Immigrants to America have been taken advantage of, scorned, labeled, denied rights, abused, and killed. But by the end of a generation, in most cases, the fears of established Americans are proven false, strangers become neighbors, and immigrants are assimilated into the great American melting pot.

REPEATED PATTERN. My work as director of an inner-city Indianapolis community center demonstrated this repeated pattern. Early 20th-century German and Irish immigrants were initially resisted and labeled before being embraced as the neighborhood core within twenty years. The next wave of urban community migrants--African-Americans coming from the American south and gateway cities--were stridently resisted but eventually embraced as neighbors and integrated into the community fabric. The third wave of new urban dwellers is predominantly Latino. Again, there has been resistance and inhospitable gestures in the neighborhoods. They will, however, eventually be embraced by most.

WILL WE WELCOME THE BURMESE? I now serve on the Board of Directors of a 90-year old neighborhood center that started as an immigrant settlement house. Our director presented us with a new challenge this month--to begin to work with the State Department to welcome and integrate refugees from Burma into our services and community. The Board response was less than enthusiastic (mostly because our center is already overwhelmed!) and I imagine the response of the neighborhood may be less enthusiastic still. Neighbors will likely groan, complain, stall, and open our hearts only at the insistence of a visionary leader, but we WILL make room for the Burmese in our community.

CAVEAT. Caveat: African-Americans are an exception to this repeated immigration scenario. Brutal capture, shackled shipment, inhumane treatment, ungodly regard, centuries of forced labor, and continuing prejudice are tyrannies that cannot be compared to America’s history and current situation of immigration. But the resistance African-Americans experienced as they migrated from the south and gateway cities into Indy's urban neighborhoods in the mid-20th century is not entirely dissimilar to the resistance our new immigrants are experiencing.

CAN WE BREAK THE PATTERN? Here’s my point: Why do we need to completely resist and alienate immigrants before conceding, much later, that they aren’t such bad people as we were led to believe, or needed to believe? Why do we repeatedly circle the wagons, lock the doors, put up “keep out” signs, and make it as difficult as possible for immigrants to live among us before we let down our guard and see the value of their friendship and community contribution? What kind of game is this, and is it necessary to keep playing it if we don’t have to?

OUR PRESENT OPPORTUNITY. We have the opportunity to quit playing the “no more immigrants” game, to discontinue our embarrassing ritual of fear mongering, suspicion breeding, name-calling, and ridiculous policy-making. We have the opportunity to get it right, or to repeat our pattern of ignorance and humiliation. Can we get it right this time? Let your community, state, and national leaders know of your support for breaking this mean cycle this time around. And even if they won't listen--or are busy playing to the fear-mongerers--fulfill the promise of the Statue of Liberty and live its spirit by making room in your neighborhood and relationships for the immigrant neighbors all around us.

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