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How much do we care, America?

Op-ed: Lazarus' sonnet looks into the soul of America and asks "How much do we care?"

Forty-plus years in the news business, thousands of stories written and mostly forgotten, but I still remember Mary Kubichka. I met her just once, and for just a few minutes, yet she has never left me.

She sat in a wheelchair in New York City's East River Park, a pale blue sweater around her shoulders as she watched hundreds of sailboats rehearsing a Parade of Sail toward the Statue of Liberty. It was July 3, 1986, and the start of a four-day holiday weekend celebrating the statue's centennial.

The Baltimore Sun, in its flush-with-money days, had sent a team of reporters, photographers and a columnist to cover the event. My first story ran on the Fourth of July, across the middle of the front page. And Mrs. Kubichka's story took up most of the opening paragraphs:

"More than six decades ago, Mrs. Kubichka said, she too had passed the statue — in the final moments of her journey to America from her native Ukraine. She left behind the uncertainties of World War I, and her parents, two brothers and two sisters she would never see again, to make a new life here.

"'She is like a lady that invites everybody in,' Mrs. Kubichka, then 82, said of the statue. 'We should all see her.'

"A widow now, with a son, four granddaughters and four great-grandsons living on the West Coast, the former maid and factory worker was taken to the park yesterday with other residents of the American Nursing Home on Avenue B to see the Parade of Sail on the East River and have a taste of fresh sea air.

"Thousands of people — from the 2-year-olds brought from day-care centers to octogenarians like Mrs. Kubichka, and New Yorkers and tourists from all over the world — sat or walked along the river as sailing ships of all sizes slipped by in the generous morning breeze."

More than 30 years have passed since I wrote that story, yet it comes to mind powerfully amid the national debate on immigration reignited by the new administration. President Donald Trump wants to close America's borders to visitors, immigrants and refugees from seven largely-Muslim nations, and impose a temporary freeze on nearly all refugee immigration until — as he so inelegantly put it on the campaign trail — "we can find out what the hell is going on."

America's history has had waves of anti-immigrant sentiment against the Chinese, Irish, Italians and Jews, among others. The nation has been overly fond of northern Europeans of white complexion and wary of people of color — save for the slaves brought to her shores in chains from Africa.

American history is not, in its entirety, a pretty picture. There is nothing new about xenophobia, racism and intolerance. And most of all, there is hypocrisy in the face of America's ideals and even in the words of the Constitution.

There is a much-quoted sonnet by Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus," on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty that expresses perhaps the highest of those ideals:

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!"

That was face of America greeting Mary Kubichka, who by the waning days of her life had accounted for three generations of citizens — and doubtless more posthumously in the 30 years since I met her.

Nothing in the words of Lazarus' sonnet constitutes law. It merely, yet powerfully, looks to the soul of America and today poses a question: How much do we care?

David Ettlin is an occasional blogger and retired Sun reporter and editor. He can be reached at david.ettlin@comcast.net.

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