The saga taking place on our borders is a sad reminder that time moves in slow concentric circles and that as a people, we often fall far short of our lofty American ideals.
Decades ago, afraid that refugees were a threat to national security, Franklin D. Roosevelt turned away hundreds of desperate individuals escaping Nazi persecution. Finally, bowing to increasing pressure to do something, Roosevelt capitulated and 1944, 1000 mostly Jewish refugees were invited to wait out the war at an abandoned army base in Oswego, New York. Considered guests of the President, these displaced individuals had no legal standing and were expected to return to their homeland after the war. Until that time they were kept behind a chain link fence — adding humiliation to the unspeakable traumas they had already suffered.
For generations, thousands of accompanied— and unaccompanied — children arrived in Ellis Island with the blessings of parents who hoped that their children could forge a better life than they themselves could offer. My own grandfather was seven years old and traveling with a local family when he left Italy to meet an older sister living in New York. Danger often pushes us to make unthinkable decisions. Poverty does the same thing.
I doubt there are any readers who would condone Roosevelt’s initial choice to turn away so many desperate people seeking shelter, many of whom later perished in concentration camps. And whether or not they were accompanied by their parents, how many of us are not grateful for the courage of immigrant ancestors who gave us our own American roots?
Of course there is a great difference between legal and illegal entry, but desperation often forces difficult, life and death decisions. As in every choice set before us, kindness and compassion should always trump rigid man-made rules.
History is a perceptive and truth-bound teacher but her lectures drone on and on to inattentive, apathetic learners. At best, we watch out the window, selfishly disengaged and absorbed in the minutia of our own lives. At worst, we are callous egotists, indifferent to the needs and suffering of others, wielding power instead of pity, stubborn righteousness in lieu of compassion.
The more I read and research, the more I realize that History is not simply a indifferent record of the past. To those who are listening, History issues a vital warning about the present. As human beings we are capable of great kindness and compassion, but we are also capable of great cruelty, self-centeredness, and indifference. Be vigilant, History seems to implore. Be brave. Do what is right before what is wrong destroys the good you have achieved.
As we sit daydreaming, History is taking notes. Years from now the conscientious student will wonder how we let it happen. With so many high ideals, how did we lose our way?