Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
*(Some restrictions may apply)
--Emma Lazurus, inscription, the Statue of Liberty, 1903
Look at the very small print beneath any offer that seems too good to be true and almost always it contains a familiar caveat: some restrictions may apply. Take the myth embodied in Emma Lazurus’ iconic poem “Colossus”, which adorns the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. It declares that America will always welcome the world’s huddled masses, her tempest tossed, yearning to breathe free. But what of this mythical ideal? This comforting story we still tell ourselves as Americans in 2015? Is it now just false advertising, a faded romantic vision, replaced by America’s post 9/11 xenophobia and our national self absorption?
Maybe Lazarus’ poem should now feature an asterisk on the last line, warning refugees, the war torn, orphans, the “wretched refuse of teeming shores”: some restrictions may apply. That’s certainly the message our nation has offered these past few weeks as the world community grapples with what to do about the Syrian refugee crisis. Since Syria’s civil war began four years ago, nine millions Syrians have fled their homes. Six and half million remain in Syria. Three million have found refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. The remainder, half under the age of 18, are on the move, desperately seeking sanctuary and mercy.
Many nations have been incredibly generous in embracing the Syrians. Germany: 500,000 refugees. Sweden: 64,700. France: 24,000. Great Britain: 20,000. Denmark: 11,300. Hungary: 18,800. Bulgaria: 15,000. Then there’s the United States: until last week we’d welcomed just 1,500 in four years. That’s not a typo. That number works out to .016 of the Syrian refugees. In a land of 321 million people, a land of immigrants, among the richest and most powerful on earth, we can’t even find the room to welcome enough folks to populate a very, very small town. For comparison: if the United States were as magnanimous as Germany, we’d be ready to shelter 3.2 million refugees.
There are plenty of political and bureaucratic excuses for this lack of mercy. It can take up to two years to vet refugees after they apply. Blame that on 9/11. We need to take care of “our own” first, right? Presidential candidates squirm when asked about what to do. All of this avoidance of responsibility makes me wonder how quickly many of us forget that millions of us are here because our forebears landed on these shores. They weren’t turned away. Lazarus’ poem did once ring true.
As a person of faith, the refugee crisis reminds me that in the practice of religion, the refugee always claims a special place in the heart of God. Jewish: “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens [once].” Christian: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Muslim: “Do good: to orphans, those in need, the wayfarer.” We’ve talked about this crisis in political, practical, and national security terms. But now our compassionate God asks us as a nation to talk about the refugee crisis in moral terms.
What is our moral responsibility as Americans to fellow human beings, who wander the earth with no place to call home? What is the right thing to do in response to the worst refugee crisis of the last 25 years? If we were displaced and homeless, with nothing but the clothes on our backs, huddling in a bus station, beset by angry crowds, fleeing political chaos, would we not pray for just a little mercy?
So imagine this. There are more than 350,000 houses of worship in the U.S. Imagine the larger ones stepping up and agreeing to host and settle just one refugee family. Imagine smaller ones banding together to do the same. Imagine our political leaders talking about the refugees as a community to be embraced, not just a problem to be managed.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me in. That’s the bottom line, the call, and the need, right now. It is the good and decent and merciful thing to do. No asterisk. No excuses. Lady Liberty expects nothing less.