Let Them In

Sister Ellen FitzGerald with refugees in 1979. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center.
Sister Ellen FitzGerald with refugees in 1979. Credit: Mercy Heritage Center.
Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Print

By Sister Ellen FitzGerald

The Sisters of Mercy stand in solidarity with our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters. This blog post is part of week-long focus on Mercy and immigration, including historical accounts of the sisters’ roots as immigrants in the 19th century as well as a look at Mercy ministries, past and present, serving our immigrant and refugee sisters and brothers. Visit the webpage for Mercy for Immigrants to learn more.

Introduction—Looking Back

The essay below was originally published in December 1979 in the University of San Francisco Campus Digest, just months after President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order allowing some 13,000 refugees per month to enter the United States. Refugees were escaping the Communist regimes that had taken over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. They were flown on chartered aircraft to Travis Air Force Base, north of San Francisco, then bussed to San Francisco International Airport to be put on commercial flights to their final destinations—agencies all over the United States that had accepted their cases for resettlement. These agencies were scrambling to send their local staff to San Francisco to welcome the refugees, get them food, take care of emergencies, bring them to their departure gates, and so on. The agencies were understaffed, and the refugees just kept coming. Our motherhouse was just 10 minutes from the airport, and when we got the request for help, over 100 of us answered.

There were an estimated 12 million refugees in 1980. Everyone worked so earnestly to help these people and get them resettled—not just Sisters of Mercy, but governments, agencies, churches of all faith, all over the world. Today there are over 65.6 million people forcibly displaced. Do we see the same commitment? Haven’t we learned anything in the meantime?

Let Them In—An Essay on the Southeast Asian Refugee Crisis, 1979

Everyone has seen pictures of the current starvation in Cambodia, and almost everyone agrees that aid should be sent to those dying people regardless of political considerations. There is much less agreement on admitting refugees into the United States. Are we justified in adding 14,000 people a month to an economy barely able to sustain the poor we already have?

My view of the Indochinese refugees comes from volunteering at the transit camp near San Francisco International Airport where most of them enter this country. While the U.S. Catholic Conference is a major sponsor, the resettling agencies include Luther Immigration, Church World Services, World Relief and others. Their staffs and volunteers, an ecumenical lot, have all felt the unity that happens when good people of many backgrounds work together. It is the refugees who unify us, beyond culture and race, in this powerful experience of shared humanity and a common conscience. They deliver us from judgments like the ones history passes on nations who 40 years ago refused Jewish refugees. “The Family of Man,” “Unity in Diversity”—the clichés come to life. After meeting Laotians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Cambodians—so different in culture and even in features—I can never again categorize “Asians” as a group. Are these youngsters “foreigners” who act so like my own nephews? The dignified, impassive Hmong tribesmen from the mountains of Laos reveal one way of dealing with catastrophic loss; the outgoing, affectionate Vietnamese Catholics embody quite another, and bring home to me in a new way the catholicity of this Church of mine.  

We need these insights, as we need hearts opened to understand the different cultural values of these newest immigrants. Often I wonder whether “Can we afford to take them?” is the right question. More and more I ask, “Can we afford not to?” In a society of mass-produced goods, entertainment, and (it seems) personalities, the sheer individuality of a Laotian farmer’s hand-made twig broom seems emblematic. Do these refugees with their pathetic few possessions have anything to offer the richest nation in the world? I think they do, because I know what they have given me and I know I need to be reminded of what their lives speak.

Material possessions and security are not the ultimate values: I believe that. But I have never had to take a 50-50 gamble on death as a condition of my belief, as the “boat people” have. I want to live in a free country; but I have never had to do anything much more difficult than registering to vote. What can I say to the Cambodian who, to escape a fanatical and ruthless dictatorship, walked for three months through the jungle and watched his youngest child starve? What of the city families sent to cultivate collective farms—without seed, tools, or experience? If none of these people have the right to enter America, neither did our ancestors.

And if we spurn the gifts of spirit these refugees bring, we may be numbering our own days. We Americans already seem doubtful about the future, unwilling, for example, to support large families or vote for school bonds. But the refugees I have met trust the future enough to give it hostages—their children. They are used to living lightly on the earth and so are frugal, courteous and grateful for everything. They cherish family above all. And they are tough, with the quiet toughness of survivors. Given a chance, they will be sending their grandchildren to the Senate—just as Germans, Irish, and Italian immigrants have done. It is good to be reminded that America, with all its faults, is a place where that can happen.

But perhaps the most precious gift the refugees can give us is a way out of complacency. No matter how much we do, tomorrow there will be another planeload, barefooted and trusting. Without them, can we even begin to understand this difficult human business of giving? Jesus once praised a widow who gave not from her surplus but from what she needed to live on. Those refugees shake my self-righteousness, and I love them for it.

When I help them board flights to their new homes, they always thank me—I represent all Americans; I stand for a welcoming and generous nation. And I know that for our own sakes, we need to let them in.

Reprinted with permission by the University of San Francisco.