This piece was first published in the August,1984, issue of Friends Journal. We republish with permission. Given America’s current persecution of Central American immigrants, it almost seems as if nothing has changed since then.
The cover photo by Janice Hill, courtesy of American Friends Service Committee, is of a Salvadorian boy in a refugee camp in Honduras.
A teacher by vocation, Lilith Quinlan co-directed of Common Ground, a faith community working for peace and justice, and a member of Baton Rouge (La.) Meeting. This meditation was part of her meeting’s declaration of sanctuary, April 26, 1984.NOTE: Contrary to this article, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty opened many decades after the potato-famine emigration.
One word summarizes the current situation with regard to U.S. policy in Central America and the treatment of refugees entering as a result of those policies. The word is hypocrisy. Two construction projects are images, signs of this hypocrisy.
The first is the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. (My guess is some of your kinfolks came by there awhile back. Mine did—economic refugees—from Ireland when the potato crop failed).
A special commission is raising $230 million to give Lady Liberty, mother of our “beloved immigrant,” a facelift. The head of this commission is Lee Iacocca, renowned for his salvage of bankrupt endeavors. He states the importance of the restoration this way: “The statue is really for all of us. It is a reaffirmation of what freedom means. Next to the flag, it is the most important symbol we have.”
While school children in New England are selling candy to rebuild the Statue of Liberty, we have a large and quite different project going on here in Louisiana: the “alien detention center” in Oakdale. This $17.1 million facility with a projected budget of $6-$7 million per year will be able to imprison 1,000 “aliens” initially, then 2,000.
It has been described by Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials as a longterm holding facility and is the first such prison administered jointly by the unholy alliance of the Bureau of Prisons and the INS. A new center is also being built in Alexandria to train 1,000 people for the border patrol, doubling the present capacity.
So while the Statue of Liberty gets ready for tourists, Oakdale looks forward to holding and deporting men, women, and children who are refugees fleeing the violence in Central America that we help to create. We in Louisiana will have a place where the poor and oppressed languish as they do in El Corralôn in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and at another corralôn opened recently in Houston.
Deportations will continue; the rate now is 2,000 per week. The Archdiocese of San Salvador reports that 30 percent of the people deported to El Salvador are murdered.
Hear the words of international law, U.N. protocol, and U.S. law: A refugee is one who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, nationality, religion, membership in a particular social group, or having a certain political opinion is unable or unwilling to return to his/her own country.”
Hear the words of another law: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33-34).
There is a third building being constructed in this nation in obedience to these law: a movement of compassion. On March 24, 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, provided sanctuary for the first time. Today Baton Rouge Meeting joins 121 other churches and synagogues offering hospitality to refugees from Central America. We join 12 other churches waiting for refugees to enter their sanctuaries.
The arrests of church workers transporting refugees in the valley and the tightening of checkpoints mean our government is again pushing aside hands outstretched in love—in the name of political expediency.
Unless the policies of this nation change, there is no point in Lee Iacocca’s restoring the facade of the Statue of Liberty. A facelift will not reawaken the soul of this country. Our violence to others is coming home.
“There is no freedom on earth or in any star for those who deny freedom to others” (Elbert Hubbard). A disillusioned Salvadorian recently described his vision of a solemn statue in New York Harbor, barring entrance to our nation with a raised torch of warning for aliens who try to enter.
Today, we open our doors, put up the banner “Sanctuario” and hold up the light of welcome and refuge in obedience to the law of our land, international law, the laws of Scripture, and the law of love. We do so in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and in nonviolent resistance to oppression, racism, and murder.
We must remember, however, that today we arc vessels for the light of liberty. This light is not ours but the light of the Spirit, not the artificial light of a cold statue but a living light which may expose the hypocrisy of our nation and help to make visible again its soul.