My great grandmother Rose was just 10 when she traveled to the United States with her family. They fled from Poland to England, took a boat to Canada, and crossed the border. The trip was long, but not nearly as treacherous as the journey many refugees are taking across the Aegean Sea today.
At the Canadian border, there were no wire fences or soldiers with guns. The biggest decision Rose’s family had to make was whether or not to identify themselves as Jewish when they registered with American immigration services.
It was a huge, potentially life-threatening decision for Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Europe.
My ancestors were lucky — they got out in the first decade of the 1900s, when things were bad but ghettos weren’t yet being replaced by concentration camps. My family had their papers and knew to mark “Druid” under the religion category on the immigration form, a darkly humorous way of hiding their identity.
Other Jews who sought shelter in America weren’t as lucky. Between 1933 and 1945, the United States only took in 132,000 Jewish refugees. Washington refused to raise or even meet its quota as the mass extermination of Jews in Europe claimed 6 million lives.
Horrifying images are finally bringing today’s refugee crises into focus. A photo of a drowned toddler in the Aegean. Terrified Syrian refugees huddled behind barbed-wire fences in Hungary. Numbers inked on the arms of children who managed to survive the passage to Europe, eerily echoing the Holocaust.
These images resonate on a profound level with descendants of Jews who fled European anti-Semitism. Many people of different backgrounds are connecting on some level with this crisis.
Except the U.S. government.
Since 2011, the Obama administration has granted asylum to scarcely 1,500 Syrian refugees, even as over 4 million have fled. While the government has signaled that it will welcome an extra 30,000 global refugees in 2017 — bringing its total for all groups up to 100,000 that year — that will barely make a dent. Far smaller nations are making far larger commitments.
For a nation of immigrants and the world’s largest economy, we’ve become about as welcoming as a desert cactus.
Each wave of immigrants in this country has faced staunch opposition. The Irish, Scottish, Italians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Salvadorans, Greeks, Mexicans, Haitians, Cubans, and other nationalities all endured discrimination, threats, and racist protests when they arrived. Each passing decade brings new groups of people for the xenophobes to hate, and for officials to impose an immigration quota upon.
I cried when I first visited the Statue of Liberty. I was about six years old and Rose was in her 90s, frail and with the mind of a child.
The Statue of Liberty seemed so huge and powerful up close — I was scared to climb up the stairs inside, but I did get a good look at the statue’s famous inscription: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free…”
This is the powerful, emotional message on our favorite monument to our nation of immigrants. It’s time for us to get serious and live up to that inscription. There are too many tired, poor, huddled people still yearning to be free for us to ignore them now.