When my Norwegian forbears (and Greek and German) sailed into New York Harbor, they were greeted by the Statue of Liberty with these inscribed words of welcome:
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.
It’s hard for me to think of even my distant relatives as “wretched refuse.” Nor were they homeless — or terrorists. But some of my Norwegian ancestors were draft dodgers from the levies of their Swedish colonial overlords. These same descendants, however, went on to serve in both World Wars under the American flag, and I served in Vietnam.
In today’s America there is resistance to newcomers: to Mexicans, to Syrians, and to Muslims of any stripe. This is not new. There has always been a political undercurrent of hostility towards foreigners with foreign values. By the 1850s, alarm bells were sounding over a society heading to the demographic dumps. Just 10 years earlier, the body politic of the United States was 95 percent Protestant. But in only 10 short years, America had sunk to a 90 percent Protestant level. Calls rang out for bans on all new Catholic and Irish immigrants. Emblematic of today’s politics, proponents of these bans proudly proclaimed themselves, “the Know Nothings.”
None of this represents our better nature as expressed in the last line of Lady Liberty’s poem:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
As opposed to an anti-Mexican/Syrian/Muslim wall, there is an instructive, and more positive, model from the past. From 1975 to 1980, the United States absorbed a half-million Vietnamese refugees, after Vietnam fell to the communists. Because of the fear of communist infiltration in this tide, an elaborate vetting process was set up to ensure there were no violators of the Smith Act, which makes it a federal crime to “advocate the violent overthrow of the government.”
A three-step system was put in place by the Congress:
First, refugees were collected in U.N. camps in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines where State Department officials interviewed applicants to verify identities, do criminal background checks, and learn of professional history and political associations.
Second, those found eligible were flown to the U.S. where they were quarantined in quickly refurbished former military bases at Camp Pendleton, Calif.; Fort Chaffee, Ark.; and Indiantown Gap, Pa., for further interviewing and checks by the FBI.
From those installations, third, refugees were farmed out to church and civic group sponsors, for settlement in their communities, that did their own vetting of their selected families. In fact, I was hired by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service to pitch refugee families to Church Councils. Locals tell me that there were many such church sponsorships in East Tennessee.
The Vietnamese Resettlement Program has been a true American success story. The 1.7 million Vietnamese in America today have a higher per capita income and lower unemployment rate than the national averages. Also, of any current American immigrant group, the Vietnamese have the highest rate of naturalization to full citizenship.
Following this model, a wave of Syrian refugees could become a similar success story. As in the earlier Vietnamese wave’s safeguard against communists, the infiltration of terrorists intermingled in the stream of Syrians is a legitimate concern. This can be readily overcome by a similar tripartite scheme: first, safe harbors for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Egypt; second, setting up of quarantined sites in the U.S. for further scrutiny; and, finally, the reactivation of the sponsorship network that so successfully integrated the Vietnamese into American society.
Under such a responsive, responsible system, I can imagine a welcoming Blount County lifting up its lamp beside the golden door for Syrian refugees to join in the American dream of my draft-dodging Norwegian ancestors.