"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free." So reads The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statute of Liberty -- that beacon of freedom and opportunity for millions of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. But do we believe it anymore?
In some contexts, yes. Over the last 20 years, as a nation, we have taken hundreds of thousands of refugees from Iraq, Myanmar, Vietnam and the former Yugoslavia. In 2013, the U.S. accepted over 26,000 Cuban refugees and asylees (it is estimated that there nearly one million Cuban refugees and asylees living in our country). In Ohio, we have also expressed our propensity for compassion. There are approximately 45,000 Somali immigrants living in the greater Columbus area, many of whom are refugees. Akron contains one of the largest populations of Nepalese-speaking Bhutanese (including many refugees) in the country. And lest we forget, Cincinnati was the first stop on the Underground Railroad where escaped slaves could first breathe free, on their way to Canada.
Yet, when it comes to Syria we have chosen not to believe. The humanitarian catastrophe in Syria dictates that we stand on the side of compassion and open our arms to their huddled masses. This July, Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton announced Dayton's willingness to take in Syrian refugees, but was met with resistance from a local congressional member.
We are a country of immigrants. Some came here to seek opportunity and some came fleeing oppression. We have a proud history in Ohio of accepting and embracing those tempest-tost to us, regardless of why.
Do we as a state and a country still believe we are morally bound to accept those huddled masses escaping oppression yearning to breathe free? And if not, what will it take for us to believe it again?
Last week, the U.S. government stated that we will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. That is unacceptable. Germany, a country of over 80 million people, is accepting at least 800,000 with no imposed limit in sight. Just by its raw numbers, it is wholesale accepting the entire population of Columbus, Ohio, this year. By proportion, the United States would have to accept over three million refugees to rise to that standard (larger than the City of Chicago or approximately the size of the Denver metro area). I'm not advocating adding a whole San Diego metro area to our country, but ten thousand is too paltry a number to be taken seriously (assuming a family of four, that ends up being only slightly more than three thousand families in a country of over three hundred million people).
Pope Francis has called on every Catholic parish in Europe to take in and house one refugee family. In Europe, that would be approximately 120,000 families. If that call was expanded to the United States that would add at least 17,000 families just in our country (approximately five times more than our government has already agreed to accept). That call should represent the bare minimum we should be willing to accept.
We have a choice to make in this country as to how we want to lead in this world. We can continue to debate the "how" of taking more refugees, but not the "if" anymore. I believe we should lead by example, like we used to. I believe that whatever moral authority we have left in the world continues to be degraded and compromised when we show such a lack of compassion. I believe we should open our arms as a country and our hearts as a people to the Syrian huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Will our government believe? That's the ten thousand person question.