Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” to be auctioned off in support of the building of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. I have read that the sonnet reflects Lazarus’s deep concern for refugee immigrants. The most famous, now iconic lines from the poem offer an eloquent call of welcome to downtrodden strangers:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
the wretched refuse of your teaming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
As the Statue was itself a gift from the French, it is hard to read these lines and not see Theodore Gericault’s oil painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819).
The painting takes as its subject the 1816 wreck of a French Navy frigate setting sail to colonize Senegal. Of the 150 men on board, only 10 survived the 13 day trial. In thinking of the painting in light of Lazarus’s sonnet, you see the hope of rescue as the welcoming act of hosts who will extend these weary sufferers hospitality and thus recognition for their plight.
Gericault was right to envision hope on the raft as Lazarus was correct to envision her call from within the Harbor: the land tells a story of welcome very different from the dream. Even before Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona wagged her finger in President Obama’s face, she articulated a much harsher view of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” than meets with Lazarus’s ideal. For her, the longing for freedom conveyed through the ideal, hides a more sinister truth of predators plaguing Arizona’s border. New immigration laws in Alabama, Colorado, and Georgia reflect many of the same tough measures against those yearning masses that Brewer contends are threatening Arizona’s borders. The “golden door” appears to be shutting.
“It had all been a farce,” thinks Amerigo Bonasera in the opening scene of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when the two young men who had “tried to dishonor” his daughter receive suspended sentences. Refusing to accept this injustice, Bonasera turns to the Godfather, Don Corleone, and he begins his plea for justice with these claims: “I raised my daughter in the American fashion. I believe in America.” I thought about this when I sat across from Chege, a detainee being held at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia on Saturday. Chege sought political asylum in the United States but his request has been denied. He has been in the States for a year. Most of the men detained at Stewart are there between two and three months but Chege’s lengthy stay may have something to do with the violence at the shared border between Kenya and Somalia. Chege’s three sons and one daughter live in Kenya so maybe he is claiming it as home because they reside there as he also has claimed Somalian roots. How could the U.S. deport him in light of the turmoil in these places? For his part, Chege was not frustrated with the U.S. government nor has he been critical of our hospitality, like Bonasera once believed, Chege still believes in America.
As I listened to Chege recount American history as he has learned it through diligent reading of Joy Hakim’s The History of US and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it was clear that he has faith in the goodness of our country. He trusts us to get it right. As I listened to him describing the courage of a people to claim their freedom from an oppressive government and in committing to democracy to see it through its moral mistakes and its failing to get it all right, I strained to keep out Don Corleone’s critique of pursuing American justice:
“You go to the law courts and wait for months. You spend money on lawyers who know full well you are to be made a fool of. You accept judgement from a judge who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets. Years gone by, when you needed money, you went to the banks and paid ruinous interest, waited hat in hand like a beggar while they sniffed around, poked their noses up your very asshole to make sure you could pay them back.”
It was clear to me that Chege had no sense of this critique. “I believe in America,” seemed to underscore his every utterance. When I asked him if he had any message he needed me to carry or send to his family, he said no because he had an aunt in Kansas who had taken care of that, but he did want me to convey a message about Congress. He wanted me to convey the message that their political rhetoric was damaging the potential of the good, American ideas being put forward by the President of the United States. “What they are calling ‘Obamacare’ is a good idea,” Chege told me. When people are well-taken care of, when they can be sick and know they will be taken care of by good doctors, it strengthens the security of others,” Chege said. “People are less subject to prey on those with money so as to pay health care bills they cannot afford if they were granted insurance,” Chege continued. What an interesting way to frame the defense, I thought, coming from someone of a class our government has constructed as a threat to national security. “America shines brightly as it is,” Chege told me, “but imagine how bright its light if they ensured the health of all its people.” Chege expects that universal healthcare will be a mandate because it is a good idea, which he thinks is the one that historically prevails in America. He believes in America.
How can you still believe when we shut the “golden door” in your face, I wonder. It wasn’t clear to me why Chege, unlike Bonasera, never even wonders if it has all been a farce. Rather, he accepts the conclusions that Don Corleone suggests comes with believing in America:
“Then you have nothing to complain about. The judge has ruled. America has ruled…Be content…So give me your word that you will put aside this madness. It is not American. Forgive. Forget. Life is full of misfortunes…The court gave you justice.”
Chege is not bitter. Even though you have never stepped foot as a free man on American soil? I believe in America. Even after we said that we don’t want you? I believe in America. Have you ever read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, I asked him. “No,” Chege responded. How about August Wilson’s Fences?” “No,” he said. “What about The Godfather?” “No,” he told me. “I wonder what you would think of them,” I said.
For some time, I had been looking forward to spending time with some of the people who volunteer at El Refugio, a house extending hospitality to the families of men detained at Stewart. I worked alongside people who offered food and drink, conversation and smiles to one woman with five children who had gotten on the road at 4 a.m. so that she and her family could visit her husband who was being detained at Stewart. From my understanding, he had been on the way to pick-up his wife as she had gone into labor and was stopped by the police for speeding. He did not have a driver’s license. The six-month old child, the youngest of the five, was first seen by his father through the glass window at Stewart. Later, two other women arrived with children. I do not speak Spanish so I do not know how long their journey was but we managed to share smiles as we negotiated forks and knives, made sandwiches of turkey and cheese, and filled glasses with Brita filtered water. It was striking to me that these women and children would be so gracious as to receive our hospitality. They did not blame us for fracturing their lives and troubling their families with our call to their “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I certainly wouldn’t blame them if they did, but they didn’t seem to.
There are still places in the United States where people recognize the plight of the “tired” and the “poor” with a “yearning to breathe free.” There are still people who refuse to allow those people to be without welcome. For me, their work is what Marvin Gaye called “wholly holy.” The folk at El Refugio are “lifting the lamp” that gives Chege a reason to still believe in America. They offer “another model by which to live” that shames the work taking place at Stewart Detention Center. That facility makes a liar out of the Statue of Liberty…and that should bother us.