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Ahlin: In light of the refugee debate, Thanksgiving rife with irony

FARGO -- Some time after the Department of Homeland Security was established in response to America's Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, a Native American patient of my husband's gave him a gift. It was a T-shirt with a picture of long-ago Indians holding ...

FARGO -- Some time after the Department of Homeland Security was established in response to America’s Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, a Native American patient of my husband’s gave him a gift. It was a T-shirt with a picture of long-ago Indians holding rifles. Above the picture were the words, “Homeland Security.” Below the picture was the phrase, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.”
The T-shirt came to mind last week when anti-immigrant rhetoric concerning Syrian refugees hit fever pitch. Frankly, it’s particularly relevant given this week’s Thanksgiving holiday. Unless we are citizens who happen to be 100 percent Native American, the irony for this year’s Thanksgiving celebration is undeniable. Call it great grist for satire, but what could be more contradictory than insisting we’re ever grateful for this wonderful land where Indians were willing to feast with the invader Pilgrims – not to mention where all our immigrant ancestors found a home and opportunity for a better life – but as far as we’re concerned, the desperate refugees of today can go fly a kite. They don’t belong in our country.
I’m not the first to mention a few pertinent parallels. For instance, do the people who want to deny immigration to Syrian refugees think the U.S.A. was correct in 1939 in not allowing the S.S. St. Louis full of Jewish refugees to land in Florida? How about the Gallup poll from January 1939, that showed “61 percent” of Americans thought we should refuse to take “10,000 Jewish refugee children”? And talking about children, doesn’t it resonate in the ugliest and most xenophobic way that last week governor of New Jersey (and GOP presidential contender) Chris Christie said he wouldn’t even allow Syrian “orphans under 5” to enter America.
For that matter, consider another parallel. The terrorists who flew into buildings on 9/11 were not refugees resettling in America. They were young men on student and tourist visas. And they weren’t from a country we mistrusted. They were from our Middle East ally Saudi Arabia. This bizarre fussing about resettling Syrians mocks reality. (All but one of the French terrorists had French and Belgian passports.) Our federal vetting process for refugees is extensive and takes 18 months to two years to complete. Does anybody really believe that ISIS is interested in two years of the resettlement process?
More to the point, does history teach us nothing? And don’t we see when politicians are manipulating us by playing on our basest instincts and fears?
Poet Emma Lazarus was born in 1849 into a Sephardic Jewish family with American roots that preceded the American Revolution. The reason we know her name today is that she authored the poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on a bronze plaque installed in 1903 inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Few recognize the first stanza of the poem, but we all know the second stanza – if nothing else, because of that great old Irving Berlin rendition in song. Here it is with a few annotations that are descriptive for today:
... “Give me your tired, your poor,” (Well, maybe not your really poor.)
“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” (Too many – enough already!)
“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” (Inferior people? Religious weirdos?)
“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,” (It’s some other country’s turn.)
“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Shut the doggone golden door for awhile.)
Thanksgiving is more than a day for personal gratefulness; it is a day for national gratefulness. It’s also a day of national affirmation. Our national motto adopted in 1782 by Congress says it best: “e pluribus unum,” out of many, one. It was true for the original 13 colonies coming together, and it’s true for the ethnic diversity that has kept our nation vibrant and tolerant. Before we sacrifice such a core principle of national identity for an illusion of safety, we should acknowledge how ashamed we are for every time we’ve done so in the past.
Ahlin, of Fargo, writes a column for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Email him at janeahlin@yahoo.com .

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