If we remember the lines on the Statue of Liberty, we'll welcome refugees

The global refugee crisis brings to mind a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and inscribed on the pedestal of that gift from France -- the Statue of Liberty -- in 1903.

The poem, "The New Colossus," is a tribute to the millions of immigrant families who came to Ellis Island through the port of New York in the late 19th century, of which my family was one. Here's what it says:

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!

Although I was born and raised in New York City, I visited Ellis Island only once: for a sixth-grade history project. I stood there in awe like any other tourist; the sheer size and symbolic import of this monument was not lost even on a 12-year-old.

The world is now confronting its greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and we didn't do such a great job saving the Jews from the Nazis back then either, let's recall. Now we have another chance to do the right thing for people fleeing ISIS.

I was in New York City on 9/11, two blocks from the World Trade Center. I watched people die and thought that I too would die that day. So perhaps more than many residents of Alaska, I know what it means to be in the middle of a domestic terrorist attack. But refugees fleeing ISIS are not meaningful threats to us, certainly no more than any American who decides to shoot up a movie theater.

It's a stark affront to this country's values and fundamental principles to indulge bigotry; to refuse safe quarter to people fleeing unfathomable violence and turmoil around the world; to suggest that people should be subjected to religious "tests" as a condition of entry to America. This is the disgraceful response advanced by smug, crowing, self-proclaimed "patriots." And yet, it's quite literally the least patriotic response imaginable.

I want to know if even just one of the politicians publicly calling for America's rejection of refugees knows what it means to be a refugee. Have they ever spoken to or met a refugee? Have they even the slightest inkling of what refugees endure to get here? Do they know how hard they work once they get here? Do they understand what refugees are leaving behind? Do they appreciate the arduous vetting process refugees undergo to resettle here? Do they recall that America is founded on the principle of open arms to refugees in crisis? Do they know the statistical fact, as reported by The Economist, that not a single one of the 750,000 refugees who have resettled in America since 9/11 has been arrested or charged with domestic terrorism? (Only two, from Iraq, were arrested on terrorism charges, and they were not planning an attack in America but aiding al-Queda at home.)


If those politicians do know these things, they pretend not to.

To paint refugees with the broad-brush label of "terrorists" and turn them into straw bogeymen for political gain is unconscionable. It's wrong. It's shameful. It's immoral. It's probably illegal under international law. And it's profoundly un-American on every level. If we don't raise our voices in opposition to these disingenuous maneuvers now, then in my opinion, we don't deserve to call ourselves Americans.

Immigrants are an enormous asset to this country. They always have been, and they always will be. It would be a grave and unforgivable abdication of our democratic ideals -- not to mention a breach of fundamental human rights -- to turn our backs on refugees now. And to suggest that refugees should be sequestered and interrogated based on their religion isn't a "political" statement or lighthearted "partisan" fare for late-night television. It's sowing the seeds of genocide, and history has shown it should be taken seriously.

It's easy to call yourself a patriot. That's just a word. But it's moments like these in history that truly test the meaning and substance of our words. Future generations will not look -- and historically have not looked -- kindly upon people who turn their backs on refugees in crisis.

Will we be on the right side of history this time?

Libby Bakalar is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in Juneau. She is an occasional contributor to We Alaskans magazine, and one of her columns runs in today's edition.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

Libby Bakalar

Libby Bakalar is an attorney and freelance writer who blogs at One Hot Mess Alaska. She is a former assistant attorney general for the state of Alaska.