The actor James Naughton, who lives in Weston, recently called on all people outraged by the treatment of children and their parents at the border to come to the bridge in downtown Westport the morning of June 29th to publicly oppose Trump’s immigration policies.
When I arrived on the bridge, there were already over one hundred demonstrators assembled. I met some from Norwalk, others from Fairfield, Weston, and Westport. We marched to the lawn in front of the Westport Library to listen to Sen. Richard Blumenthal speak. First, we heard Broadway star Kelli O’Hara sing the Star Spangled Banner. I watched many of the older folks assembled press their hands over their hearts.
Blumenthal implored us to work to change these fear-mongering policies. He told the story of his own father who fled persecution in Germany in 1935, and arrived in the US with no money, unable to speak English. This reminded me of my own grandparents who came to the US and Canada in the late 1890s, fleeing poverty in Ireland. It was their striving for a better life for their children and grandchildren that helped build this country. My father’s father was a construction worker who helped build the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. My mother’s father became a real estate developer who built many of the three-deckers in Dorchester and ran for Mayor of Boston at one point. Like mine, most families in this country don’t have to go too far back before they have a direct relative that would have been kicked out under the President’s policies today.
Is this “making America great again”? For me, our country was great when it was a beacon of opportunity and economic mobility, democracy, and open, civil debate that attracted our parents or grandparents. Being Irish-American I loved JFK’s message “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” and RFK’s commitment to civil rights and to improve the lot of marginalized people for whom the beacon of economic opportunity was dimmer the closer they got, confined in urban slums and isolated rural poverty. I hope the 21st century in the US becomes a time when diverse people work together building communities, not walls and gated neighborhoods built like fortresses to keep out “the Other”.
I love Norwalk because it is a microcosm of that melting pot that America can be where people live safely and in good spirits sharing in each other’s joys and struggles for a better life. We need to choose to welcome the stranger, the person desperate to give themselves and their children a better life in a democratic country.
Under the Trump administration, we seem to be denying science instead of facing down the challenge of climate change. These refugee crises and wars will only get worse if we ignore the crop failure, horrific storm damage, and wildfires that create chaos and force people to leave their homes. The effects of climate change are a root cause of desperation for many in the developing world. We ignore the suffering of our neighbors at our own peril in this interconnected world. That’s why my banner at the demonstration read “Love thy neighbor. No exceptions.”
A woman who worked for Save the Children talked about witnessing sad sights like the father and daughter who recently drowned in the Rio Grande. She had seen the same kind of tragedy over and over when, a couple of years ago, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria arrived in Europe. Her voice cracking, holding back tears, she recalled other dead parents and children who didn’t make it to “the promised land” of Europe. Blumenthal said many ask “What can I do?” He encouraged the crowd to donate to Save the Children and other nonprofits who are helping people fleeing dangerous homelands like Guatemala and El Salvador.
We must all make time to shake off our indifference to the perils afflicting others, whether gangs, climate change, or war. We must not get so caught up in our own lives that we forget the suffering outside the US.
Naughton encouraged a Marshal Plan for Central America to build up healthy economies in migrant home countries, to reduce desperation to leave. In the meantime, I will work to unseat any politician who gains currency or traction from demonizing the poor. Let’s work for leaders that pledge to live up to the inscription on our Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
We are the richest country in the world. Let’s deploy our resources to save the world from climate change and war. This will turn out to be a more sound strategy than putting our heads in the sand, war-mongering and hoping to protect the US as if it can be an isolated enclave unscathed while the world burns around us.