By: Jimi Jobin
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she ' With silent lips. "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!"
So reads the full inscription on our Statue of Liberty, which has waved its welcoming torch to countless immigrants for over 100 years. She declares that America is unique among the world's nations. That we eagerly greet those who are unwanted, homeless, and downtrodden. That we refuse the mentality of an ancient homeland where we belong and others do not. She declares that we, unlike other countries, see the value in a human being.
Recently Arizona's state legislature passed an immigration bill that rejects this noble past. Through the eyes of this new law police officers are required to pursue illegal immigrants as never before. To hunt them down at any cost, even racial discrimination and illegal profiling, whatever it takes to rid the state of their presence. Casting out the tired, poor, huddled masses of wretched refuse into the cold uncaring world, Arizona's new law shines a light on a national truth that has gone unaddressed for far too long: that we are no longer the Mother of Exiles as our statue commemorates. Her torch takes on new meaning, a warning. We should tear down our historic inscription and replace it instead with another: "Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here".
Hell as it turns out is not so distant a destination in these times. In the Christian New Testament Jesus warns the world that failing to care for those in need was the same as failing to care for him personally, something that came with the most dire of costs. "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. For I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." In Jesus' teaching, a follower was duty bound to serve whoever was the "least" in a society, failing to do so was a damning gesture.
While Hell may seem a heavy cost for the Christian who fails to "welcome the stranger", even the Jewish Old Testament warns the faithful of the folly when Moses' God tells the Hebrews "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt." It seems that welcoming a foreigner into one's midst and giving them a home is a consistent thread in the Holy Writ that claims to shape most American's morality. Yet these lessons are abandoned when we are presented the opportunity to put them into action.
Pragmatically, logically, and politically it makes sense to push immigration reform. But Americans embrace another paradigm that is seldom focused on: virtue. It is virtuous to have compassion on the strangers in our land. It is noble to welcome the homeless and make room for our neighbors and fellow citizens of the world. And while most American's cannot internalize the calculus that proves immigration reform's value, they can empathize with the morality of never abandoning the lonely, or the desperate.
This is why our iconic Statue of Liberty is emblazoned with poetry, sculpted in symbolism, and stands proudly as an emotional reminder to each generation. It does not summon our enlightened senses, but rather our hearts. We imagine how such an edifice must have greeted the oppressed, the hopeless, the bankrupt, as they drifted to this new land, desperate for a better life. Their tears streaming down dirty faces, as they read the words, and as they thanked God Almighty for such a place; a land where the poor and the broken are made whole, where the unskilled and ignorant are empowered, where the least of these is valued as if they were the very Son of God.
Drawing on these reasons of the heart, and the conscious of our predominant faiths, we must call ourselves to return to this past. To welcome the sun worn face of the immigrant, to embrace his children into our schools and their illnesses in our hospitals, to invest in him dignity, wholeness, and value. Only then can we rightly claim the meaning of the Statue that was built to honor us, only then can we proclaim that we are a nation unlike any other, only then can we stare off into the distant twilight, a torch held high beckoning the hopeless to find strength, searching for those we might heal, that we might welcome, that we might restore. Only then can we become as we began, the Mother of Exiles.
Jimi Jobin is a spiritual wanderer and teaches Religion and Philosophy in a private school. He, his wife and son live in Las Vegas, Nevada.