Thursday, August 5, 2010

Citizenship & Borders

The New Colossus

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

by Emma Lazarus, New York City, 1883


Emma Lazarus, a protégé of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a well known author and poet in her lifetime whose Sephardic Jewish family had been in the United States since the Revolutionary War. A child of privilege, she became an activist for destitute Jews as an adult. Her poem was not engraved on the Statue of Liberty until after her untimely death at 37, and now people are probably more familiar with the poem than the name of its author.

The poem stands in stark contrast to the reality of immigrant welcome to the United States today. I mention Lazarus’ early death and her own lack of name recognition as a remote parallel to this story, which describes the current welcome of immigrants coming into the United States at the border of Arizona and Mexico. These, too, die untimely deaths at all kinds of ages, but probably none are old and most are young. Their names often remain unknown.

A commons frame challenges the meaning and nature of borders and citizenship. We are first and foremost citizens of the world. Our pledge of allegiance is to the earth and the health and well being of all its inhabitants. Social justice organizations need to work for immigrant rights, but also we have to address issues of poverty, unfair trade practices, and working conditions globally. The simple fact is that people ought to be able to visit one another’s countries and feel welcome there. They should earn enough money that if they want to take a trip, they can. They should not have to sneak in, risking arrest, deportation, exploitation and even death. Neither should anyone feel so desperate for work that they are forced to leave their own country to go to another.

Commons activists, in addition to working for immigrants’ rights, must constantly raise the question of citizenship and borders. What do they mean? What are they for? How can our borders be a great open “golden door?”

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