Myths and Meaning

Center of Concern | Wed, Jul 9, 2008

By Bill Griffin, CSX

As a nation, our attitudes and responses to the issues and events of our time are often shaped by myth – tales handed down through family trees or stories transmitted through grade school textbooks. In the heightened and passionate conversation around immigration, myth has played a compelling role on all sides of the debate. The rhetoric surrounding the immigration raid that took place May 12 in Postville, Iowa highlights the differences between the two competing predominant myths.

On the one hand, seared into our hearts and in stone at the Statue of Liberty is one myth as expressed by Emma Lazarus. It was the dominant myth behind the immigration policy that inspired many of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents to board ships and risk their lives on unpredictable seas to come to America, the land of the free:

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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!"

Yet, another emerging immigration myth has been gaining traction since the U.S. launched the “Global War on Terror,” following 9-11. The myth preys upon the fears and insecurities of the nation, scapegoating the immigrant community for our devolving job market and for our highly inflationary medical industry. It re-creates the migrant as a transgressor, someone less deserving of human dignity and fair treatment before the law.

The proponents of this myth insist that because of raids such as the one that detained almost 400 people in Postville, Iowa, we should all sleep better at night. The threat has been vanquished; deterrence is working. Yet, as we look a little closer and see the families separated, the communities torn apart, those of us still living with the earlier myth fear instead we are losing part of our soul.

When I look behind these two immigration myths I see two quite distinct realities. In the first, we are a welcoming America who would not “criminalize” a person for seeking a better life within our borders, but would instead receive them and unite together to create a shared and greater future. Sadly, behind the emerging myth, I see an unsympathetic, nasty America who terrorizes mothers and fathers trying to give their children better lives. I am so glad my grandparents experienced the welcoming “New Colossus” of yester-year and not the jealous, punitive one now guarding our shores.

Migration myths fill the pages of scripture beginning with the Garden of Eden, and are the underlying story within countless other great literary works. As we read this blog our planet is migrating through space to a destiny we know not but hope will be a welcoming state of love and freedom. Our Church tries to live this myth and challenges us all to courageously embrace it.

Written by Brother Bill Griffin CFX, Education for Justice, Center of Concern, Washington, DC June 23, 2008.