In my 2017 quest to remain steadfast in authenticity, I decided to pause my visceral reaction to last week’s Executive Order on Immigration and check myself on what I was really feeling and what was at the root of those feelings.

This is some of that reflection:

I am a first generation American, the oldest child of German immigrants. My parents were not refugees; they were not running away from persecution, political unrest or some horrific natural disaster. Instead, they were willingly heading toward opportunity and all the promise the United States offered in 1956.

Mom and Dad left behind a loving family in a tiny Hessian town at 20 and 21 years old. They did not know the English language but were sure they could learn. They did not have jobs, but they did have skills. Dad was a bricklayer, Mom was a dental hygienist. They had no friends to welcome them, but there was a distant aunt who begrudgingly helped them settle in. Mom and Dad did have a deep religious faith and that wide-eyed enthusiasm of the young to carry them through. They lived a pretty good life for about 50 more years in their adopted homeland.

Mom and Dad, circa 1956

As a young child of German immigrants, I had to deal with what would be called bullying today.

Hey, Nazi girl, how many people did your parents kill? (My parents were less than ten years old during World War II.)

Your people killed my people! (My hometown had a large Jewish population. Most were great people.)

I heard your Dad knew Hitler. (Um, no.)

I know, I know, children can be cruel. But, childhood memories stay with us and help mold the adults we become. Those mean-spirited comments have floated to top of mind since President Trump signed the Executive Order temporarily halting immigration from a select group of countries.

What I see in Mr. Trump reminds me of the 3rd grade boy who grabbed me as I was leaving school one day. “John P.” wrenched my arm in an unnatural twist and, seething through a clenched jaw, told me that my family should go back to where we came from. The United States was the only home I knew. My parents were good people. I didn’t understand where his hatred came from.

What those kids didn’t know was how hard it was for my Dad without a high school education. Or how sad Mom was when her Dad died and she couldn’t afford to travel back to Germany for his funeral. They didn’t know that my uncle was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. Or that my grandpa eventually lost a leg due to his combat injuries. Or that my other grandpa was proud to be chosen by the United States military to serve as a local transitional leader after the U.S. liberated the Germans in his town.

The kids didn’t know how deeply hurtful their comments really were. It was in those formative years that my attitude toward immigrants – beyond my parents – was shaped. They need to be welcomed, encouraged, and loved for wanting to further the American Dream, not belittled, discouraged and hated simply because they were born somewhere else.

We cannot judge what we don’t know.

We don’t know the stories that immigrants carry with them. Most of us certainly can’t begin to comprehend what experiences refugees have been through. We can only imagine some of the comments, or worse, that Muslims, especially, have to deal with in some parts of our country. Unfortunately, that messaging is now coming from the top, from the executive office of our government. And that’s what bothers me.

If the poem on the Statue of Liberty applies to anyone, it is for the refugees who have aways been welcomed here; children of famine on the verge of starvation, men who have been beaten and women who were sexually assaulted by local radicals. These are families desperately trying to stay together and eager to build a life in peace.

Lady Liberty invites refugees and other immigrants to our shores. I cannot abide our president turning them away.

I am thankful for the courts, the government leaders and the local citizens doing whatever they can to ensure that does not happen.

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.

-excerpt from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, posted on the base of the Statue of Liberty


Photo credit: NY Statue of Liberty by Celso Flores, used with Creative Commons license.