Bedraggled, frightened, and haggard they come by the thousands, risking death on the high seas. A new wave of immigrants is swamping Europe as they flee conflict and poverty in sub-Sahara Africa and the Middle East. Some find death as their frail boats capsize or are swamped in unforeseen storms. Others are beaten or starved by the cynical criminals who exploit their poverty and desperate need. Coast guards and private ships from Greece, Italy and other nations struggle to gather this tragic harvest from the sea.
In the face of this almost unprecedented wave of suffering people, the response has been cruel and heartless. European nations are quibbling about quotas and reducing their rescue fleets. And the United States? We ignore this problem with a shrug: “Not our problem.”
I disagree. Whenever there is suffering in the world the United States that I love and cherish is a nation that steps up when there is a crisis like this. One thinks of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty as directly applicable: “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!”
Our American history is replete with previous crises that were ignored: Jews on ships turned away by the U.S. before and during World War II; the persecution of Chinese laborers in 19th century California who were subjected to cruel quotas; escaping black slaves returned under the Fugitive Slave law; and the recent Rwanda genocide. We must not repeat these tragic evasions.
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What can be done? We experienced a similar crisis four decades ago involving thousands of escaping Cambodian boat people. The U.S. and the Fresno community stood up to this crisis. Our church, Community United Church of Christ, adopted a family fleeing from Pol Pot’s oppression. We were not alone. Other churches in our town and nationwide sponsored families. And Fresno’s Catholic Charities, under the guidance of Eula Kelly, was in the forefront locally. Tens of thousands of families were settled nationally.
How can all of us ignore this suffering in view of the universal admonition to aid the suffering and homeless?
And our family’s story is one of heartwarming success. They consisted of a widow and three small children whose husband and one child starved in the escape from a relocation camp. Our church members supervised grocery purchases, school admissions and the acquisition of housing. And we obtained a job for the widow. And fast forward: All three children are married, taxpaying graduate engineers with secure jobs, beautiful homes and growing children!
Why is there no similar response now? Why is there no national cry for the U.S. to step up? Why is Europe turning its back? How can all of us ignore this suffering in view of the universal admonition to aid the suffering and homeless?
I suspect it is because they are (gasp) often Muslim and/or black. Deep prejudices, perhaps unconscious, blight our compassion. I am especially perplexed that their normal constituencies, the black and Muslim communities, have not responded (perhaps because they are preoccupied with their own domestic battles?). I see leaders of all colors and faiths parading with signs decrying police violence, advocating for or against gay marriage and abortion while ignoring these immigrants. Why?
I know we can’t accept all of the suffering people in the world; I know that there must be a restrictive policy to deal with this problem and stanch the flow; I know they must be carefully screened for terrorists. Yet these are no excuses preventing quick action for an immediate crisis.
As Christians, Jews and Muslims, as U.S. citizens and members of the Fresno community, we must answer this cry of humanity and respond by vigorously calling for a new federal policy, and when it comes by accepting these people in our towns: family by family, church, mosque and synagogue by synagogue. It is time for action, a time for compassion. As Americans we can do no less.
Phil Fullerton of Fresno is a retired lawyer. Email him at Puyricard8@sbcglobal.net.