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-tossed to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Words on Statue of LibertyThose words embody the ideal that Americans have of their country an open, generous refuge for the downtrodden, a place to breathe free. Yet in actual practice, the golden door is not wide open and hasn't been for many years.
Certainly, legal immigrants are still welcomed 600,000 of them in 1986 but that is a quota, representing only a fraction of those who would like to come.
Then there is the growing flood of refugees, around the world. For them, America is not the accepting place it once was. And the U.S. is not the only nation that is turning something of a cold shoulder.
A report issued recently by the U.S. Committee on Refugees said that refugees around the world increased by 1.6 million from 1986 to last year up from 11.7 million people to 13.3 million. Unfortunately, the prospects for resettlement are getting worse. Britain, Switzerland, and West Germany have all raised new barriers against seekers of asylum.
Thailand, which has 404,000 refugees, most of them from Indochina, has refused to let Vietnamese boat people land, pushing those desperate voyagers back out to sea where more than 100 have died.
The latest waves of refugees are in Africa and Asia, people fleeing civil warfare in Afghanistan and Mozambique. Millions have been displaced in those two countries. Most of the refugees spill into neighboring lands that are nearly as badly off.
The committee was critical of the U.S. for its relatively harsh treatment of refugees, including detaining them with criminals. Ordinary Americans undoubtedly would like to be more receptive, but a struggling economy seems to have dampened some of the more generous impulses.
There is a certain emotional clash between those sentiments inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and the instinct to keep others out. That's an uncomfortable feeling for a nation of immigrants.
Clearly, the U.S. cannot accept everybody in the world, or even everybody in Latin America. There have to limits, quotas. But still, this nation ought to be as understanding, as accepting as it can in its treatment of refugees. We cannot do less and still be true to ourselves.