Immigration Legislation #4: The Importance of Historical Memory. Oh, how we have forgotten our past!
May 27, 2010 by M. Daniel Carroll R. | 0 Comments
Many have heard at least a few lines of that famous poem that graces the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Emma Lazarus wrote the poem “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising effort in 1883, even though the statue would not be finished until 1886. In 1903 it was engraved on a plaque and placed inside its pedestal. The stirring words that most will recognize from that poem read:
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-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Everyone that now lives in the United States, with the exception of the Native Americans, is the descendent of an immigrant – whether in this generation or in years long ago. Every person, in other words, has roots in another country and culture, someone or a group that made their way here looking for work and a new life. Perhaps this was for a fresh start in fleeing from persecution, maybe simply the desire for adventure or, most commonly, the commitment to provide a different future for themselves and their loved ones.
Many who came to these shores endured a painful process of becoming part of the reigning culture. American history is full of these difficult stories. Among the many, one could mention the creation of Irish and Italian ghettos, the persecution of the Chinese, the mocking of the Polish, the marginalization of the Germans, and the exploitation of Africans. These immigrant stories of hardship, of people trying to fit in and to understand a different language and way of life. These are delicate and complex histories that had their social, economic, political, religious, cultural, and personal dimensions.
It is telling that the United States suffers from the loss of immigrant memory. Usually all anyone remembers is snippets of a cultural relic—a favorite recipe from the home country or a Christmas tradition. Lost are the memories of suffering, of exploitation, of the awkwardness of struggling to communicate with an accent, the embarrassment of feeling out of place… Once we forget those experiences, we no longer can sympathize with those who have recently arrived. They now are the different ones, who do not belong and who make us feel uncomfortable because they are not like us.
This danger of loss of concern and care that comes from immigrant amnesia is recognized by God. God did not want his people to forget the harshness of their immigrant story! One of the key motivations he gives his people to show compassion to the newly arrived is to not forget their treatment in Egypt (Exod. 22:21 [Heb. 22:20]; 23:9; Lev. 19:34). What God is telling his people is: You will not be like that oppressive nation that exploited foreigners for their labor! You must never forget what it was like for you so that you do not repeat those attitudes and actions against those in your midst.
There is much to learn here for today, isn’t there! Oh, how we have forgotten our immigrant past! Maybe if our memory were better, there would be a different tone in the national debate and more constructive measures under consideration. We need to pull out those old photo albums, read the accounts of our ancestors, ask questions of our grandparents… we need to recover our memory of the past to make for a better present.