On the base of the Statue of Liberty, a poem is engraved that hearkens to the elaborate principles of America. The same poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, sounded out across both the Atlantic and the Pacific; beckoning shivering and sea-swamped immigrants to Ellis Island that the east and Angel Island to the west. These people were some of the first to seek refuge in the modern United States, and despite apparently shining morals and open declarations of compassion, some of the last. These migrants were accepted into the United States only to be taken under the wing of titans like Boss Tweed in New York, who squeezed thousands of humans into small tenants and rung out gallons of cheap labor like sweat from a slave’s brow. Perhaps the West Coast was more stunning with miraculous completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a work of modern ingenuity that was glued together with the lives of Chinese and Irish immigrants alike.
The exploitation of naïve men and women looking for a better future is still a tradition in the States. Just see if you can count the masses of Mexican migrants that come to the United States to buoy our agricultural system with cheap labor. A tradition we may well see the end of as Donald Trump begins to lay brick after brick in Washington, calling for a wall that would permanently seal Lazarus’s “Golden Door” in the Southwest.
Despite the assertions of the media that the United States is sweeping droves of immigrants into the country, the Golden Door of the West has been all but shut since the Second World War, when the United States peered through the peep hole as droves of Jewish refugees pleaded for asylum. Convenient how fast a door shuts when the person knocking is in need of help and not exploitation. With such a strong tradition of selective compassion, a tradition that couldn’t make an exception for droves of Jews fleeing the Holocaust, it is no wonder that today the Statue of Liberty stands with not a torch but her middle finger raised towards Europe.
After four years of civil war in Syria and terrorist groups committing genocide and wreaking havoc across the Middle East and Africa, Europe is experiencing a refugee crisis. People fearing their lives are trying to run, and there are limited places they can go. Much of the Middle East is throwing money at the problem but maintains a “Trumpesque” attitude towards allowing refugees to seek asylum, claiming national security concerns as well as the “not my circus not my monkeys” defense. Up until very recently, European countries have held the same posture, leaving people to seek refuge in Turkey where cultural differences and inhuman conditions in overcrowded camps have taken their toll. In the last couple weeks, however, Europe has opened their doors, with Germany leading the charge, reportedly preparing to accept 800,000 of the total 4 million asylum seekers.
This number may seem small, but where is the mighty United States in the crisis, with her call to the “teeming shores” pleading for “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? We are looking out the peephole, just as we did during World War II. The fact is that these people need help not exploitation, something we do not specialize in. Senators called for the United States to accept 65,000 Syrian refugees, the UN wants to send 15,000, but the White House currently maintains that it will accept only 10,000. A lofty goal considering we have currently only accepted 1,500; ten times less than what the United Nations asks for to take the burden off of countries that can hardly stand the economic or cultural strain. Countries like Lebanon (which is smaller than Connecticut yet hosts 1.2 million refugees) and Jordan (about the size of Maine) are stretched to their limits trying to save millions from an entire section of the world that seems to be on fire. While it is impressive that these countries have managed to cram so many people into such a small space, some people might think it’s pretty messed up that the United States has volunteered to help so little.
The images of Syrian children drowned on the shores of Turkey seem to mean little to the United States and our unshaken devotion to turning away those in need. Instead of thinking about helping though, we are determined to shut out even those we can exploit, closing down the Ellis Island of the 21st century by building a wall on the southwest border. Lazarus writes of the silent lips of the Statue of Liberty, our “Mother of Exiles.” So silent are her lips that she can’t call for help as a frenzy of fear, xenophobia, and nationalism scour away at the famous poem. Once the bronze plate at the base of the statue of the liberty is wiped clean, the words “STAY OUT” are etched in and the golden door is slammed shut. The brick walls are built, the statue of liberty stands proudly with her middle finger shining out across the Atlantic, and the United States goes back to staring out of a small golden peep hole.