In 1883, the American poet Emma Lazarus penned a short sonnet as part of an effort to raise money for a fantastical-sounding statue that the French people wanted to give their American friends to honor the two nations’ shared values of liberty and justice.
By the time Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, was eventually mounted in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty, the third great wave of American immigration had begun. It was 1903, and over the next five decades, millions of immigrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty would catch their first glimpse of the new world as their ships entered New York harbor under the fierce and watchful gaze of the “Mother of Exiles”.
“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,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Today, more than a century later, Donald Trump and his allies have utterly traduced the values that Lazarus espoused by waging an escalating campaign to demonize immigrants and stoke racial resentment among Republican voters for political gain. Over the last three years, we have watched in creeping horror as the president has cynically exploited ethnic and economic faultlines to create a climate of fear and division for undocumented immigrants and US citizens alike.
This Thursday, thousands of women from across the country will descend on Washington DC to commit a mass act of civil disobedience in direct response to the Trump administration’s cruel and immoral “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which has caused more than 2,000 children to be incarcerated in detention centers around the country.
Trump’s latest effort to fan the flames of intolerance and xenophobia, by cruelly ripping young immigrant children from the arms of their parents, has shocked the conscience of America. You don’t have to be a parent to be appalled by the screams of toddlers as they are forcibly separated from their parents, but millions of mothers and fathers have been particularly horrified in a way that only parents can be as they watch these grotesque and inhumane family separations.
Last week, in the face of a growing national furor, Trump hastily issued an executive order ostensibly reversing his child separation policy. Trump cynically tried to take credit for solving a crisis of his own making, but the American people weren’t fooled, just as they weren’t fooled by the attorney general Jeff Sessions’s outrageous and spurious Biblical justification of this awful policy.
In fact, this crisis is far from over, and will likely get much worse before it gets better. In an ominous sign of things to come, the Trump administration last week ordered the Department of Defense to prepare to hold as many as 20,000 undocumented immigrant children on military bases around the country.
The mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of America will not stand down until the imprisoned children are released and reunited with their families. And we will not stay silent as federal enforcers indefinitely incarcerate whole families in detention camps.
We will put our bodies on the line to demand an end to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that automatically criminalizes undocumented immigrants. We will put our bodies on the line to demand the safety and freedom of the children being held in detention centers across the country. And we will put our bodies on the line until Congress sets in motion a plan to abolish the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).
The images we have seen and the cries we have heard evoke some of the most shameful moments in our nation’s history, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese people from entering the US to work, and the second world war-era Japanese internment camps, in which more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly relocated and imprisoned for the duration of the war.
We will put our bodies on the line because we will not allow history to repeat itself.
- Winnie Wong is a political activist and adviser to the National Women’s March