Contemporary Immigration Trends and the Impact of U.S. Policies
Migration and Refugee Services
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
St. Francis University Campus
April 20, 2004
The New Colossus
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-tost, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
November 2, 1883
This famous sonnet, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, and affixed on a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, came to symbolize the statue’s universal message of hope and freedom for immigrants coming to America and for people seeking freedom around the world.
From its earliest beginnings, the United States has been identified by its immigrant heritage. How often have we heard the expression, we are a nation of immigrants? Indeed, one of our most cherished national holidays, Thanksgiving, commemorates the arrival of the pilgrims, refugees fleeing religious persecution, who sought freedom and new beginnings in this land.
Many Americans find an emotional attachment to and take great pride in our identity as a haven for those seeking freedom and opportunities. We generally credit earlier generations of immigrants with creating a nation that symbolizes hope in a world riven with hatred and conflict. Here in this nation we call America, we have proven that a multi-cultural society, devoted to democratic ideals, can become a leader in human rights and a land of opportunity.
Yet, our immigration laws and policies, especially during the past decade, have become increasingly restrictive toward would-be immigrants.
The questions raised this evening are these: “Are we as a nation turning inward and away from our immigrant roots?” “And, if so, what are the implications?” To help us consider these questions, I will begin by reviewing historical and contemporary immigration trends and our public attitudes and policies toward immigrants.
When the Statue of Liberty was erected in New York’s harbor in 1886, the United States was in the midst of what many call the “first great wave” of immigration. From 1850 to 1920, the foreign-born population in this country grew from about 2 million (2.2 million) to just over 14 million (14.2 million), reflecting large-scale immigration primarily from Europe. At the height of this immigration, between 1900 and 1910, nearly 9.5 million immigrants arrived in the U.S. In 1850, the foreign-born population represented just under 10% of the total U.S. population; by 1920 the foreign-born comprised 15% of the population.
Immigration during this period had an even greater impact on the Catholic Church in the U.S. In 1830, the Catholic population in this country was 318,000. Just 70 years later, in 1900, the Catholic population had grown to more than 12 million. As a proportion of the total population in the U.S., Catholics went from being 3% in 1830 to being nearly 16% of the population by 1900.
[When I was in high school -- I went to a Catholic high school in Columbus, Ohio -- 90% of the student body traced their ancestors to this wave of immigrants.]
Beginning in the early 1920s, immigration to the U.S. began declining. By 1950, only about 7% of the U.S. population was foreign-born. By 1970, the foreign-born population in the United States reached a record low at 9.6 million, representing just under 5% of the total population.
Since 1970, the foreign-born population has increased rapidly. And, unlike earlier immigrants, who came largely from Europe, these newest immigrants came from every region of the world, with the largest proportions coming from Latin America and Asia.
Today, the foreign-born population stands at about 29 million, or about 11% of the total population.
Public Attitudes Toward Immigration
Listening to some in the public policy debate over immigration today, one might assume that total immigration to the U.S. in recent years is at unprecedented levels. The restrictionists would have us believe that immigrants are overwhelming us. A book written a couple of years ago by Pat Buchanan, titled, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, apparently had some appeal. It shot to the top ten spot on the New York Times best sellers list. Buchanan and others say that immigration is out of control and fast leading us to what Buchanan calls a “third world America.”
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the anti-immigrant voice has struck a nerve by appealing to our fears. They argue that the surest way to protect our homeland is by curtailing immigration. After all, the terrorists were foreigners, so let’s keep all foreigners out!
But, you know, when you scratch the surface of these arguments and you look at the facts, you get a different picture. For example, if you consider the immigration statistics I reviewed earlier, you see that the foreign-born population in the U.S. today (at 11%) is less than it was in 1920, when it was 15% of the population. So, one could legitimately argue that we are less a nation of immigrants today than we were 100 years ago.
Throughout our history, we Americans have had ambivalent attitudes toward immigration. I believe for many the question of immigration inspires emotional more than rational responses.
I am reminded of the cartoon that shows a group of Native Americans standing on a bluff looking down at Plymouth Rock as the Mayflower enters the harbor. One turns to another and says, Well, there goes the neighborhood!
In the earliest days of our nation, immigration was encouraged because of economic necessity. This new and developing nation needed massive amounts of labor to tame the Western lands, build the railroads, and help fuel an economy that was labor intensive.
But, Americans begin viewing immigration as a bad thing when the economy is in a downturn, unemployment is high, or when there is a national crisis. Remember the internment of U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II? Likewise, when Americans perceive immigrants as not adapting to the “American” way of life and not learning English, they tend toward anti-immigrant sentiments.
Here’s a little known fact…Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken critic of German immigration to this country. He felt that the Germans who were immigrating in the late 18th century were not assimilating into American culture, which was predominately English at the time. Germans were too backwards and unsophisticated. Franklin voiced concerns that the German language would become the predominate language in the U.S. if curbs were not placed on immigration from Germany. Being of German heritage, I, for one, am particularly grateful that Franklin’s attitude did not prevail.
By the 1850’s, as immigration was approaching unprecedented levels, there was a growing anti-immigrant movement that manifested in a political party called the Know-Nothings. Sometimes referred to as the American party, the Know-Nothings were opposed to immigration and to the election of Catholics to political office. This movement soon petered out, largely because of its attitudes toward slavery.
During World War II, so many Americans were serving in the military that critical labor shortages were created in some key industries, particularly in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. It is well documented how this situation gave rise to bringing women out of the households and into the labor market. These women began working in factories achieving the highest production of war machinery in history. They were personified by “Rosie the Riveter.”
A lesser-known phenomenon, though, was the way in which the United States addressed its labor shortages in the agricultural sector. In 1942, the U.S. government launched the so-called Bracero Program. Four million Mexican farm workers entered the country to work the fields between 1942 and 1964.
By 1964, with the mechanization of farm production, it was determined that there was no longer a labor shortage and these Mexican workers, who had transformed American agriculture to the most productive in the world, were sent home.
The U.S. Labor Department Secretary at the time the program ended called the Bracero Program “legalized slavery.”
When immigrant flows to our country reached their lowest levels by the early 1960s, our immigration laws underwent a major transformation. In 1965, the severe restrictions were lifted against immigration from countries other than in Europe. So, in the intervening decades our immigration has grown and diversified.
And, you know what, these trends are representative of the changes we see worldwide. With the advancement of technology and transportation, our world has become ever smaller. It is increasingly integrated through the globalization of economies. This has given rise to a huge surge in migration around the globe. Today, there are about 175 million people living in countries other than where they were born. This number is double what it was just 25 years ago.
Our world has also become increasingly divided among the “haves” and the “have nots.” On the one hand, just 357 people today own 45% of the world’s wealth, while 1.5 billion people (or 25% of the world’s population) attempt to survive on the equivalent of $1 per day. I have visited villages in Mexico that are practically depleted of men, because they have gone north in search of jobs to support their families.
In fact, this search for basic survival has become so desperate that people are literally dying to reach our shores. More than 2,000 migrant deaths have been reported along the U.S. - Mexico border during the past five years. This makes that border the most violent in the world between two peaceful countries.
Consider the recent situation of the Haitians. The U.S. military had to create a virtual wall of ships around that poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to block departures of desperate people who, after the fall of the Aristide government, were willing to face the threat of perishing at sea to reach the safety and economic opportunities the United States has to offer.
The world’s political order is also still extremely volatile. Many expected that with the end of the “cold war” nations would direct their energies and aspirations toward peaceful co-existence. What we have found, though, is that civil conflict caused by racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds, inept political leadership, and economic deprivation, have led to massive uprooting of people. According to the United Nations, today there are nearly 35 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world. This is greater than the number of uprooted in the wake of the Second World War.
So, the point I am trying to make here is that it should not be surprising that larger numbers of people want to immigrate to this country. We are the richest country on earth, with an economy that, in fact, depends upon foreign workers. Too many people, particularly from countries in the South, lack opportunities even for basic survival. The globalization of the economy has created greater movement of technology, goods, capital, and labor across frontiers than ever before. And, there are still many situations in the world that are giving rise to refugees fleeing their countries out of fear for their lives.
Yet, even in the face of our need for foreign labor to compete in the global economy and our historical openness to immigration, our nation’s attitudes and policies toward newcomers have become more restrictive in recent years.
U.S. Policies Relating to Immigrants
So, what are our current policies toward prospective immigrants and asylum seekers? I’ll highlight a few examples to give you a flavor of how we are treating today’s “temptest-tost.”
It is revealing, I believe that the responsibility for implementing our immigration laws is now housed within the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to the passage of the Homeland Security Act a couple of years ago, this was the responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Service within the Department of Justice. By moving the responsibility for determining who is admitted to this country and how they are admitted to the Department of Homeland Security, our nation has sent a strong message to would-be immigrants and asylum seekers: “You are first and foremost a prospective threat to our country.” Rather than offering a welcome mat at the doors of our country, we have now erected gauntlets.
Now, some of you will point out that in light of the unprecedented threats to our homeland from terrorists who truly want to do us harm, we cannot afford to be as welcoming as we might have been prior to 9/11. I agree that our new reality requires a heightened level of vigilance in determining who wants to come here and who we will welcome. But, I believe we can do that in a way that protects us from true threats while maintaining our tradition of hospitality. My argument here is that by having people in our government whose first responsibility is to protect the homeland also be the ones to determine who is admitted and how they are admitted represents a sea-change in our nation’s culture and attitudes toward immigrants.
Let’s examine a few specific policies as they affect immigration so that you can be the judge of whether they represent the values you believe our nation should exemplify.
How about refugees? Since the Second World War, refugees have enjoyed a special status within the international community. When the United Nations was created, one of the first acts was to establish a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mandate is to protect refugees and develop durable solutions to their plight. Today, the United Nations tells us that there are more than 13 million refugees in the world who are in need of durable solutions. (Durable solutions include (1) repatriation when conditions allow safe return, (2) settlement within the country of asylum, or (3) resettlement to a third country.)
Refugees are defined in international and U.S. laws as persons who have fled their homelands and cannot return due to fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinions. Here in the United States, on balance, we have had a rich history of rescuing refugees. When the Czech revolution in the mid-1950s resulted in a number of the freedom fighters having to flee their homeland, the U.S. offered resettlement to thousands of them. When the revolution in Cuba produced a Communist regime and hundreds of thousands from that country fled, the U.S. opened its doors. Beginning in the mid-1970’s, with the fall of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to Communist forces, the U.S. offered a safe haven to hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has admitted more than 2 million refugees for resettlement.
In the early 1990’s, however, our government began scaling back its admissions of refugees. In 1990, our country admitted 100,000 refugees, but by 2001, less than 70,000 refugees were admitted. Then, after the 9/11 attacks, refugee admissions were completely halted while a comprehensive review of our security procedures was conducted. Once refugee admissions resumed, the numbers were kept very low. In the two and a half years since 9/11, fewer refugees have been admitted that in the one year prior to the attacks.
Consequently, we see a growing population of refugees languishing in camps for longer periods of time and our country has sent a signal to the international community that our commitment to rescuing refugees has diminished.
Story of refugees visited in camps…
Last year I traveled with a couple of bishops to several countries in East and West Africa where there are large populations of refugees. Our mission was to become better acquainted with the plight of the refugees in those regions so that the bishops advocacy efforts on behalf of refugees could be strengthened.
We visited four camps that, combined, housed some 250,000 refugees from about 10 different countries. The conditions in the camps we encountered on that trip were unimaginable. Clean water was scarce and food rations for the refugees were below internationally accepted health standards. We even saw signs of malnutrition among some of the children.
Most of the refugees we visited had been in the camp for a decade or longer. We came across a number of children who are now 10 and 11 years old and have never known anything but the squalid conditions of camp life.
In one of the camps in the Eastern part of Guinea, in an area called Kissidougou, we encountered a group of about 50 refugees who had just arrived in the camp from Liberia. After escaping unspeakable atrocities in their village and trekking 150 miles through jungles, these refugees were hungry and exhausted. In their eyes, I saw utter bewilderment. They had reached the relative safety of the camp, but what did the future hold for them after leaving everything they owned and some having lost family.
As they were being processed for entry into the camp by UN workers, we began talking to some of the refugees to learn about the conditions they escaped and about their journey. After a couple of hours, a young boy about 10 years old, who I learned later had seen his parents die during their escape from Liberia, meekly approached me and asked, “What will become of me?”
If our government was still admitting refugees for resettlement at pre-9/11 levels, I could have given this boy some reason for hope. I could have said that I would bring his case to the attention of U.S. authorities and he would have a good chance at being resettled.
Not wanting to give him false hope, all I could say was that our delegation represented the Catholic Church in the United States and that he would be in our prayers and that we were going to do everything in our power to make sure that the American government knew of his plight and that of the other refugees in that camp.
To this, he smiled and said “thanks.” I, on the other hand, had to turn away to hide my tears.
How about our government’s policies toward asylum seekers? These are people who meet the same definition as refugees, but who somehow get to the United States where they apply for asylum. Our laws give the Homeland Security inspectors at our airports and border the power to order immediate deportation of people who arrive in the U.S. without proper travel documents. As you can imagine, people who fled their countries because of persecution are not usually able to obtain a valid passport from the countries from which they fled.
Now, genuine asylum seekers are not supposed to be deported under this summary process – called “expedited removal” – but the process is so hasty and lacking in safeguards that mistakes can and do happen. There have been a number of reports of prospective asylum seekers being summarily returned to the very persecutors they escaped.
Asylum seekers who are put into this expedited removal process, but have successfully convinced the Homeland Security agent that he or she has credible grounds for asylum, face another hurdle. Current laws require their being placed in detention until their asylum claims are adjudicated. This can take weeks, months, or even years.
Story of Tibetan nun…
Let me tell you about Sonam, a Buddhist nun from Tibet.
She sought asylum in the U.S. after obtaining a fake passport and traveling to Dulles airport in Washington. She fled Tibet because she was unable to practice her religion freely.
Although the Homeland Security officials at the airport detected her fake papers, she was able to convince them that if she were returned to her country she would be persecuted further. So, she was placed in a jail in Northern Virginia in August 2003.
She remains in jail to this day, even after an immigration judge ruled that Sonam was qualified for asylum. She’s still in jail because Homeland Security is appealing the judge’s decision. Why, you may ask?
Believe it or not, the Homeland Security folks are not arguing that Sonam does not have a bone fide claim to asylum, but rather that if they allow her to remain it will lead to others taking the same route.
Not exactly the “beacon of hope” vision acclaimed in the Emma Lazarus poem!
Now a word about our border enforcement policies. Over the past seven years the number of Border Patrol agents and resources intended to secure our Southern border with Mexico have tripled. Today if you travel along this border region you would think you were in another country. In many respects the border region with Mexico has become a militarized zone. Tall, heavy fences topped with dangerous spikes or large walls, such as you see along sections of highways, but not as nice looking, stretch for miles and miles. In the more urban areas along the border, these barriers have been erected right through the middle of what used to be neighborhoods. Border Patrol agents patrol the region in military gear and increasingly use sophisticated military transports and equipment.
Since 1994, our border enforcement policy has been designed to create a blockade effect in the traditional passageways. The presence of border enforcement activities has been beefed up and largely concentrated in or near urban centers, where traditional “safe” routes across the border existed. This has resulted in migrants having to resort to border crossings in more remote and dangerous areas. Thus, the loss of life I mentioned earlier.
Sadly, not only have these policies and strategies led to loss of life, they have not had a demonstrable effect on the number of migrants who come into the country without proper documentation.
Meeting with migrants in shelter in Mexicali…
A couple of years ago, I visited a shelter for migrants in Mexicali, Mexico, a border town adjacent to the desert in Eastern California.
There I met about 25 men, who ranged in age from about 17 to 40. Most of them had just arrived at the shelter within the past 24 hours after attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross the border at night.
They all had weather-worn and weary faces. They were clearly exhausted from their exposure to the elements – during the days the tempatures exceed one hundren degress, but a night it can be freezing – and days of walking through mountains and deserts.
When I asked what they would do next, to my surprise, each said they would keep trying to cross the border until they succeeded, because they had jobs waiting for them in the U.S.
These men described how they had left wives and children in their home villages out of desperation and intended to earn enough money in America to support their families back home.
One man said to me, “I have a duty to keep my family alive and the only way I can do that is by working and there are no jobs for me at home.”
Teachings and Positions of the Catholic Church Toward Migration and Immigrants
What does the Catholic Church say about our public attitudes and policies toward migration and immigration, in particular? Well, quite a lot, actually.
In the Catholic tradition, migrants occupy a position of almost unique reverence. They evoke our biblical heritage and have built our Church. Migrants serve as the Church’s metaphor for herself and for the human condition; we’re a pilgrim people in a pilgrim church, passing through the earthly world on a spiritual journey to our final home with God.
Beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and continuing throughout the New Testament, the Bible is full of references to our responsibilities toward welcoming the stranger. In the Old Testament, it is written that the prophets taught Israel that the test of their society would be how the widows, the orphans, and the resident aliens fared among them. In Mathew’s Gospel, we are reminded that in our fellow humans, we must see the face of the Lord; I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Mt.25:35)
In an attempt to interpret the Scripture’s implications for contemporary society, the Catholic Church has developed a rich history of what is known as Catholic Social Teachings. These teachings provide principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and guidelines for actions for modern society to fulfill God’s kingdom on earth. Catholic Social Teaching has a long tradition of defending basic human rights, including the right to migrate. It also speaks to the need to address the root causes of forced migration.
The bishops of the United States have issued a couple of important “pastoral letters” in recent years on the question of migration. In 2000, they wrote Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity.
In this pastoral letter the bishops offer a vision for how newcomers from other lands should be welcomed. It says that Catholics and others of goodwill should be instruments of unity and to reject the anti-immigrant stance so prevalent today. The bishops say that we should learn more about our new neighbors and find ways to receive newcomers in a genuine spirit of welcome. And, the pastoral letter calls us to be a voice for the voiceless refugees and others who look to our nation for hope and a new life free from persecution and other forms of indignity.
More recently, the bishops from Mexico and the U.S. issued a pastoral letter entitled, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope. Here the bishops explore the plight of migrants journeying from the South in hopes of a new life in the North. It speaks to how the Church must be present in the life of these migrants; it says that in the Church these migrants must always find a home.
The bishops also outline a number of principles that should guide our nations’ public policies toward migrants. They call for policies and resources that address the root causes of migration. In other words, the bishops call on the governments in the region to establish policies and finance efforts designed to provide economic opportunities to people so that they are not forced out of necessary to seek their survival in another country.
The bishops call for creating expanded legal avenues for immigration. In other words, to facilitate the entry through legal means for people who want to live here to work or to reunite with their families, the government should make more visas available. (Today, for example, Mexicans who want to reunite with a spouse or child living legally in the U.S. must sometimes wait as much as ten years to obtain a visa.
The bishops also call for legalizing the undocumented in this country who have built up equities here and have otherwise been good citizens of their communities. The bishops call for reforms in our nations’ border enforcement policies so that the human rights and dignity of migrants are respected and protected.
Economic Arguments for Immigration
Not everyone is motivated by spiritual and moral arguments in favor of immigrants, Catholics included. So, what are the other arguments for immigration? Perhaps one of the strongest is the economics of immigration.
The anti-immigrant voices usually will avoid a debate on the economic impact of immigration, or if they do, they tend to focus narrowly on the initial costs of the new arrivals’ use of public benefits, such as schools, medical services and the like. They will argue that immigrants are draining our public coffers and that U.S. citizens are left paying the bills.
It is true that immigrants newly arrived in this country tend to use public services to a larger extent than does the native population, but this is only a limited snapshot of the economic effect of immigration. Study after study, including by some pretty conservative organizations, such as the CATO Institute, conclude that as immigrants have become integrated into American society, their economic participation has increasingly become a vital part of America’s economic growth in recent decades.
What these studies show is that immigrants, as tax-payers, provide a critical source of federal and state revenue. Their work-force participation and tax payments will be increasingly relied upon as our aging population moves toward retirement. These studies conclude that most Americans are enjoying a healthier economy and are paying billions of dollars less in taxes than they would each year without immigrants.
Here’s a sampling of some of the findings:
- On average and over their lifetimes, immigrants pay about $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in public benefits. For comparison, native born citizens pay taxes at about same levels as they use in public services.
- Immigrants who become U.S. citizens actually pay more in taxes than do native-born Americans. The average federal taxes paid by native-born Americans are $5,070 per person, per year, while the average federal taxes paid by immigrants who become U.S. citizens is $6,580 per person, per year.
- In a study of 10 U.S. businesses started by immigrants, the total revenues exceeded $28 billion in 1997 and employed more than 70,000. Beyond this, Asian- and Hispanic-owned small businesses account for the largest growth in small business enterprises and collectively earn billions in annual revenues and employ hundreds of thousands.
- 70% of immigrants that arrive here are 18 years or older, meaning that the costs associated with their education and upbringing were borne by their sending countries. The estimated windfall to the U.S. taxpayer of obtaining this human capital at no expense is roughly 1.43 trillion dollars. Another way of looking at this is that immigration is an enormous $1.43 trillion transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the United States.
- Perhaps the greatest economic gain from immigration lies in the long-term impact it has on our Social Security and Medicare systems. Consider this…only 3% of immigrants are over 65 when they enter the U.S., whereas 12 % of Americans are over 65, and that figure is growing fast with the aging baby boomers. Studies indicate that over the next 25 years, immigrants will contribute a half a trillion dollars more in to the Social Security system than they will draw from it in their lifetimes. Another way of looking at this is that without immigration, we are not producing enough wage earners to finance the growing costs of our Social Security and Medicare systems.
- Also looking down the road a bit, by 2010, just six years from now, the U.S. economy will produce about 169 million jobs; yet there will only be about 158 million Americans to fill those jobs.
More recently, in 2002, he said, “…demand is putting very significant pressure on an ever-increasing available supply of unemployed labor. The one obvious means that one can use to offset that is expanding the number of people we allow in…”
How about the President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? He says the “Demographics, a growing economy, and a growing gap between job requirements and worker skills have created a current and future workforce crisis that, if left unchecked, will cripple businesses -- especially small ones – and severely stall economic growth.” He goes on to say that “We won’t be able to close the gap without permitting more immigrants to come here and fill jobs… Immigrants from every part of the world and every skill level – from highly trained professionals to manual laborers – must help fill the void.”
By way of closing, I offer this reflection…
In a democracy like ours, public laws and policies reflect the will of the people. So, the question is whether the American public knows what our laws toward immigration are and, if so, do they feel that these policies reflect their values?
If you ask someone the general question whether we should allow more or fewer immigrants into the country, I suspect that more often than not, the answer will be fewer. However, if you take that same person who responded by saying we should admit fewer people and introduce them to a recent immigrant and ask whether that immigrant should have been admitted, the response would likely be “yes.”
Story of Somali family on flight…
The Omar family – members of the Bantu ethnic minority group from Somalia – was enroute from a refugee camp in Northern Kenya to a new home in the United States. They were among the lucky refugees who were admitted to the U.S. for resettlement earlier this year.
It turns out that after arriving in NY and going through customs and boarding their connecting flight, they ended up sitting next to a college student going home to Cleveland for Spring break.
Martha learned from the family that their entire worldly possessions were what they were wearing, so she asked if she could give them $20.
After a while, Martha felt like she should be doing more to help the Omar family, so she asked the flight attendant if it would be possible to take up a collection among the passengers. The captain was consulted and he not only agreed, he even came on the intercom and introduced the Omars and gave a brief description of their plight.
Well, by the time the flight landed, the Omar family had $830. Before landing in Cleveland, the Captain again came on the intercom to express his appreciation for the generosity of the passengers. He said that this was the “most amazing flight ever.” The passengers broke out in spontaneous applause.
At the gate, a number of passengers greeted the Omar family and wished them well in their new home. A few passengers approached the Catholic Charities staff and volunteers who were there to greet the Omars and asked if they could somehow help further as the family began their new life in Cleveland.
In the days when immigrants to our shores arrived by ship in the New York harbor, those new Americans had that wonderful symbol of welcome, the Statue of Lady Liberty, lifting her light as a beacon of hospitality and hope. Today’s immigrants do not see this symbol. What they encounter, more often than not, is a Homeland Security agent, who is anything but welcoming.
If we want our nation’s face to the world to be one of freedom, safe haven, and hospitality, it is up to each one of us to project that image. We must be the symbol and beacon of hope, just as the passengers were for the Omar family.
It truly is up to us to determine how brightly the light of welcome will shine for tomorrow’s sojourners.