“We hold these truths to be self- evident that all [people] are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” These words from the Declaration of Independence clearly state the basic rights of all people and are a part of the document that established the United States of America. Men and women gave their lives fighting for these rights so that others might freely live by them.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, France gave to the United States the statue we now call “The Statue of Liberty”. Originally named “The Mother of Exiles”, Lady Liberty stands in New York Harbor as a welcoming beacon to those who come to our shores looking for freedom and a better life. She is recognized as the universal symbol of democracy. The last lines of a sonnet by Emma Lazarus are carved in her base:
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.
Many came from around the world to settle in America…and they kept coming. Through good times and bad, generation after generation, they built the United States and brought her to where she is today. This great country was built by immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. We are all descendants of immigrants, all of us, except maybe the Native Americans.
People are still “tired, poor and yearning to be free”. Those who are knocking today are mostly women and children who are fleeing for their lives. They knock, not only after a long perilous journey by sea, but also after a very long walk through jungle and desert, at the risk of their lives because they believe in the promise of America.
Many not coming into New York Harbor are usually trafficked, for a large fee, over the southern borders from Central and South America, from Africa, Asia and Europe. They are looking for asylum and the same basic rights our foremothers and fathers were hoping for when they made the journey to the New World. They are yearning to live their lives in safety, with dignity and free from fear.
But the ‘golden door’ is not so easily opened. Instead, after crossing the borders, the refugees are asked for their papers, which they had no way of knowing they needed. If they have no papers or no relatives to be released to, these men, women and children are detained until it can proved they qualify for refugee status. In most cases they are not in a much better situation than what they left…unless others reach out to them with open hearts and hands.
I have been teaching a group of young Guatamalan women how to make jewelry. I meet with them once a month when they come to check in at the Ohio Immigration Court in Cleveland. They do not speak English, but they understand more each time I meet them. These women are intelligent and industrious, but are caught in the cycle of official papers. My hope and theirs too is that sometime in the near future they will be accepted to stay here never to return to the danger they fled.
Given the opportunity, how can you reach out a helping hand?
Sister Laura Wingert, SND, was a high school art, English and drama teacher for more than 25 years. 14 years ago, she retired and currently serves the Sisters of Notre Dame Community in Chardon, OH as a potter, nature photographer and Human Trafficking activist. She represents the Sisters of Notre Dame as a member of the Collaborative to End Human Trafficking based in Cleveland.