Yearning to breathe free

In the winter of 2004, I ran for political office for the first time.

It was a contested race for Clinton County Commissioner. I was doing everything I thought I should do to get elected.

However, I refused to abandon my personal conviction for just a few votes. Because of those convictions, a few doors were shut in my face.

Like today, it was a time in Clinton County when many employers were concerned because they could not find enough people to fill their vacant positions.

A company called Garcia Labor came into town and brought many Hispanic employees to work in the sort center at the air park. It seemed to be a win-win for the employees and the employer. However, at the time, some people in the community were concerned.

At one of my door-to-door campaign stops I couldn’t help but notice a large sign nailed to a tree in front yard of the house. It simply read, “Mexicans Go Home!”

My first impulse was to pass it by and go on to the next house, but I was curious to meet someone who was so prejudiced against Hispanic workers that they would erect a large sign in their own yard. So, I knocked on their door.

After a short introduction and giving him my campaign literature, he bluntly asked, “What are you going to do about this Mexican problem?”

I paused for a second. Then I told him I might have a solution.

I said, “Here’s what I would like to see happen. They’re already here. They all have jobs. They’re working daily and paying taxes. Next, I would like to see them become more involved in the community, our churches, schools and service organizations. In a few years, I hope that they become such an integral part of the very fabric of this community that we’ll wonder how we ever got along without them.”

The door slammed in my face. I knew I had lost a vote, but I smiled as I walked back to the sidewalk.

I don’t remember the gentleman’s name, but he certainly didn’t look like a Native American. At some point in his family history, his ancestors came to America. They probably arrived by ship. Their ship may have sailed into New York Harbor from Europe.

Like most immigrants, they would have stared up at the Statue of Liberty as they sailed past Liberty Island on their way to the long lines of immigrant processing at Ellis Island.

Like most immigrants arriving in New York, they would have embodied the inscription written on a plaque that is attached to the Statue of Liberty. The plaque reads: “… 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!”

Those words were written by Emma Lazarus. Her ancestors were early Jewish immigrants who came to America from Portugal. Emma and her family achieved the American dream. She received a classical education and became a writer and poet.

Her words have greeted millions of immigrants as they completed their journey.

Certainly, we are a country of immigrants, and certainly, we need laws and rules that regulate who can come into our country to live and to work. The process of legal immigration can be long and complicated. Some people say that immigrants should just get in line, be patient and wait.

Unfortunately, for many immigrants that is not an option.

Many of them don’t qualify for employment-based immigration, family-based immigration or humanitarian protection. There are many who do not qualify for one of the thousands of “green-cards” that are issued each year.

Sadly, for them, they may not qualify at all to enter the USA.

Currently, there are thousands of Hispanics from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Central American countries who are trekking north through Mexico. They are fleeing homes where hunger, poverty and violence threaten their lives. They are willing to risk everything to get to the United States.

Admittedly, we cannot just open our borders to any and all people who line up and form a caravan, but we should try to help them.

As Emma Lazarus wrote many decades ago when she spoke for America… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

If we want the world to see us as a humanitarian nation, a nation of faith and hope, we must be willing to help others. We must be willing to stand up and be counted as a nation that truly cares.

That should involve meeting the caravan of immigrants with a streamlined process for safely holding and screening the immigrants at the border prior to admission into the United States.

After walking thousands of miles with their hearts filled with hope and the anticipations of freedom, they should have more ahead of them then walls, barbed wire, soldiers and the threat of being shot. We need a new Ellis Island.

As a nation, we need to develop a way of saying, “Welcome to America. You can now breathe free. You are safe.

“Now, just get in line. We’ll be right with you.”

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.