ou have bathroom?” the brown-skinned woman asked with a painful look on her face. Two small children stood squirming beside her.

“No, I’m sorry. You’ll have to go to one of the gas stations down on the main road,” I said, pointing into the distance and feeling pretty certain that (a) she could never make it there and back before her number was called, and (b) I had probably lost her after “I’m sorry.”

I was standing outside the regional immigration office (ICE) in Knoxville with a group of church volunteers offering coffee, hot chocolate and a kind word to the horde of citizenship and asylum seekers lined up outside. No doubt, some of them deserved to win and some did not, but none deserved to be standing outside in the cold with no access to a bathroom. Square that with the quote on America’s most beloved statue: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

For the few lucky souls who do manage to get into this noisy, competitive racetrack we call America, here’s what they have to look forward to: a middle class that is on the run and one of the largest wealth and income disparities in the so-called developed world.

Beginning with the tax reform acts of 1981 and 1986 and continuing through last year’s massive tax overhaul, tax rates have been reduced dramatically on income and investments, and inheritance taxes have been virtually eliminated.

Top individual rates have gone from 90% in our post-WWII economic heyday to 50% in the 1980s to 37% today, and capital gains tax rates have been reduced from 28% to 20% to 15% since 1985. Globalization and automation also have taken their toll.

While the percentage of people living in poverty has shrunk around the world, here at home it has risen. The rich have gotten richer and the poor poorer. Organized selfishness you might call it. Today, about half of the nation’s wealth is controlled by three families. That’s not the America I grew up in.

Yet, still, the immigrants come. The dreamers and the desperate. Hoping to find a better life in America.

Unless you’re one of the few Native Americans among us, every American family has been where these people are. Our ancestors came fleeing wars, prison, starvation and persecution.

And they came chasing dreams of religious freedom, exploration, opportunity and wealth. So eager were we to attract citizens to our factories and farms as we surged westward across the sprawling continent that we passed an amendment to our constitution conferring citizenship on anyone who happened to be born here, even if neither parent was a U.S. citizen.

But times have changed. They always do. A nation of 328 million is not so eager simply to throw open the doors and welcome any and all comers. The Mariel boatlift gave us a frightening peek at that. Nor do some Americans still support the notion that everyone born here — even if both parents are here illegally — should automatically be granted citizenship and the attendant rights and entitlements that accompany it.

While Congress musters the nerve to work out a comprehensive immigration policy for the nation, there are a few guiding principles that all Americans should be able to unite behind regardless of political affiliation. One of those principles is hospitality. Every human being — apart from the merits of their claim — should be given access to bathroom facilities when they report to, or are brought to, an immigration office, for example. And except in the most extreme emergencies, parents should not be separated from their underage children. Nor should immigrants be expected to travel hundreds of miles for an administrative hearing, as one Knoxville attorney told me his impoverished clients were routinely required to do.

These sorts of basic humanitarian gestures are a minimum for any civilized society, much less a great nation like our own that fancies itself to be “exceptional.” Connecticut Gov. John Winthrop and one of the founders of the Connecticut Colony was the first — but by no means last — to refer to America as a “city on a hill” and a “light to the nations.” But somewhere between Massachusetts Bay and Mar-a-Lago, we seem to have gotten off track. A good place to start finding our way back might simply be to be polite to those knocking at our door.

Buzz Thomas is a retired attorney and American Baptist minister who lives in Maryville.

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