There are people -- each of us has heard their voices in our own communities -- who have a "yes, but" attitude toward the "boat people."
Their "yes" is a humanitarian recognition that some people are in desperate trouble and in urgent need of help. Their "but" is a concession to the fears and anxieties and confusions eating away at them.
"Why us alone?" they ask. "Where are the other nations who should be sharing the responsibility?" "Who are these people?" they want to know. "We don't even know if they're sick or healthy, or how they got the money they're paying to get out, or even if they could fit in here." And the most chilling question of all: "Do we need more people when we can't even find jobs for our own?"
The questions hang in the air, as the "boat people" drift, and despair, and drown. The questions harden, as we see the Vietnamese stripping the "boat people" and other refugees of billions of dollars for the "privilege" of leaving. The questions harden, as we see China reluctant to open its doors to the refugees, who are mainly ethnic Chinese, because it says open doors would give Vietnam an incentive to profit from the export of millions more of its people. The questions harden, as we see Russia, sitting as always on the humanity sidelines, watching the "boat people" only as pawns in a geopolitical embarrassment for nations in the West and in the Third World, who dismiss the "boat people" as no matter for their conscience or their concern. The questions harden, and if they become too hard for us to answer, we are in danger of default in those very qualities that make us different from any other nation in the world.
If any nation can cut through the confusions and rationalizations and self-serving loose in the world today, it is ours. Beyond any problems of our own, we can identify with the "boat people." We are a nation of immigrants, and you don't have to reach too far back into any family to find those who fled for their lives and found a haven here.
I am the daughter of "boat people." My mother, Bella, now 85, and my father, Louis, reaching 90, came their separate ways to America. They found their way somehow to the boats, traveling with little money and only the vaguest sense of direction, and then spent weeks in the stinking holds of those boats where they were packed in like cattle.
They came here alone, from villages in Russia where their families would have regarded second-class citizenship as a step upward, where the national sport was a sudden-death game called pogrom. They came here with nothing but hope, courage, a willingness to work hard, a hunger to live in peace and mutual respect with their neighbors. They were determined to become a contributing part of the American experience.
America embraced them, and all those who came here from other nations, and they embraced America with devotion that perhaps goes deeper in those for whom freedom has been only a dream. The strength and spirit immigrants have brought to our country is beyond measure, and America would be less without them.
Sometimes, America has forgotten. Too many Americans forgot in 1933, and remained indifferent when President Franklin Roosevelt sent the Coast Guard to warn the captain of the SS St. Louis, which was waiting off the Florida shore, not to discharge its "cargo."
Its "cargo" happened to be Jews fleeing the Holocaust, whom the Nazis had charged double fare for passage to Cuba, for which all had visas and where most would simply wait a short time for permission to come to the United States. The SS St. Louis was running out of fuel, water and food, and if denied permission to land had no alternative but to turn back with its "cargo." And the world knew what their fate would be. But the conscience of the world was asleep. Even in America, where we are so very proud of our moral leadership and compassionate response to people in trouble, little was done to stir the world.
We conveniently forgot our immigrant tradition. Why? Was it because some forgetful Americans could not respond to people who had been labeled as "different"? And, today, are some forgetful Americans not responding to the "boat people" because they have been labeled as "different"?
How desperate a family must be to risk their lives in a leaky, shallow fishing boat in an attempt to sail to freedom across the South China Sea, which is as vast as an ocean, knowing beforehand that one out of every two men, women and children who begin the journey will drown in the effort. We must not forget that for every refugee who escaped to Thailand from Cambodia -- which has earned the infamous title of "The Auschwitz of Asia" -- for every Cambodian refugee who made it, four died in the attempt. We must not forget that of the nearly 100,000 refugees who escaped from Laos, four out of every 10 died along the way, and most of the others found not freedom but the cruelity of detention camps in the indifferent neighboring countries. Others are being driven into the jungles or back into the sea, where their "future" is to continue to drift, to despair, to die.
The hard questions remain, but there is a time and place for hard questions. When people are drowning, it is not our way to insist that before a lifeline may be thrown they must fill out questionnaires to our satisfaction. The important thing is to get them out of the water. Let all the bureaucratic processing take place later. You cannot "process" a corpse.
We must do all we can to help these new immigrants find homes, in our own nation and others. Part of our response must be in urging our leaders to exert not only moral leadership but also every form of pressure on world opinion for greater participation by every country in resolving this human tragedy.
We must remind ourselves and the world that those who are indifferent to human misery are as responsible as those who inflict it.
If we do not respond as we should, honoring our immigrant tradition, we will be a poorer people in a shabbier world.