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‘Sorry, kid, but the boat is full’

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In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” a sonnet that now graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand,” she penned.

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“A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

“Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

“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-tossed to me …”

This has been powerful stuff for 13 decades, and millions of immigrants responded by pouring into the cities and prairies of a burgeoning country.

In view of the strong undercurrent against accepting the poor, huddled masses of kids from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, however, we need take a second look at this blanket invitation to the world and even consider sending the Statue of Liberty back to France.

France was so proud of this gift to the U.S., which was given to commemorate our friendship that started during the American Revolution. The Statue of Liberty was supposed to be ready by the first centennial in 1876 but fundraising was sort of slow so the statue wasn’t ready until 1886. It was 10 years late, and this was not a government project.

Looking at immigration historically, we let those bar-fighting Irish into the country without a raised eyebrow and North Dakota cheerfully welcomed the ignorant Germans and Norwegians to fill the barren prairies. So why not kids from Central America?

Times have changed. For sure, Texas won’t want anything to do with this sort of immigration policy although Galveston could use a tourist attraction.

For once the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are on the same page. The Democrats don’t want any more arbitrary deportations and the Republicans won’t fund any screening process. Both sides end up on the side of inaction.

Public opinion on the issue doesn’t help. It is muddled. According to the Gallup people, close to half of the people don’t want to pay the $3.7 billion requested for processing the immigrants.

With 60,000 kids, all with different reasons for being here, it will take an army of people in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to determine which ones can stay and which ones must be sent back. This determination can’t be done by volunteers.

Most of the kids are teenagers. Now we know the range of implications with that age group. Some could be gang members, and some could be wanted criminals, even though most may be escaping persecution, poverty and danger.

Right now, all of them are being housed, processed and released, pending further action. Once they are released, my guess is that they will simply disappear among the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country never to be seen again.

Unfortunately, inequities are already appearing in the process. According to a Syracuse University study, kids who can get legal counsel have a 50-50 chance of staying in the country, while kids without lawyers have only a 10 percent chance.

From a global view, more inequities appear. We have 60,000 Central-American kids searching for security and economic salvation. But there are millions of other kids in Africa and a plethora of poor countries who are suffering the same tragedies as the 60,000 before us.

No matter what happens, fairness, justice and compassion will be elusive. Meanwhile, our political system is putting the Statue of Liberty on hold. The poor, huddled masses must wait until Washington gets its act together, Emma’s invitation notwithstanding.   

(Lloyd Omdahl, of Grand Forks, is a former lieutenant governor, state tax commissioner and state budget director)

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