(Published on July 27, 2014 as a guest commentary in The Oregonian. Generated 589 online responses.)
The following day, I appeared in studio on the Lars Larson radio show:
Tuesday was one of those days that remind me why I’m proud to call Portland home. A handful of local nonprofit advocates led by the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) assembled on the downtown streets and publicly welcomed the pending arrival of refugee children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. While other towns in California, Texas and elsewhere have shamed themselves and the nation by protesting against some of the most vulnerable people in the world, Portland’s finest civil society membership has reminded us, just in time, what it means to be an American.
Jobs With Justice, Bring Them Home NW, VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project, Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, Oregon Dream Activists, American Friends Service Committee, Hella503 Collective, and the PCASC have upheld our nation’s best traditions: inclusion in the face of racially based hostility, extending a hand to the poor and dispossessed and reaffirming the U.S. as an open immigrant nation.
Without these traits, without people willing to struggle to expand the ongoing American experiment in universal social justice, our country is doomed to become just another faded empire with no lasting accomplishments, leaving behind little more than the collapsed infrastructure poisoning a ruined natural wonder.
Tuesday’s actions in Portland can go a long way toward reversing the recent horrific anti-immigrant scenes playing out against the Central American children. Those white women screaming invective at Hispanics in Murrieta, Calif., reminded me an awful lot about the white women screaming insults at black students trying to attend Little Rock public schools back in 1957. The great American hate machine, on display for all the world to see, is never a pretty picture.
With any luck, other cities might soon follow this incredible welcoming example set by the Rose City. And while Tuesday’s actions represented grass roots activism with far reaching potential, it’s now time for some official leadership as well. The Portland City Council and Mayor Charlie Hales would do well to pass at least some type of resolution or proclamation recognizing the plight of the refugee children and Portland’s important role in helping them successfully adjust to their new surroundings.
Of course, Portland need not pat itself on the back too much just yet. Plenty of conservative anti-immigrant types are sure to protest the child refugees. Portland, like the nation, rarely has a uniform take on any issue. In fact, Stumptown has a lot of bad history to live down and atone for concerning immigrants.
For example, no organized group in Portland defended Japanese Americans or questioned the need for mass internment during WWII, according to Ellen Eisenberg about a decade ago in the Oregon Historical Quarterly. The so-called Portland Assembly Center was built on the present-day site of the Expo Center in 1942 as a May to September armed guard and barb-wire concentration camp, a way station before the entire local Japanese-American population was ethnically cleansed and shipped out to larger desert detention camps.
Eisenberg added tellingly that “Portland Mayor Earl Riley presented a statement to Congressional hearings on the internment issue urging quick evacuation of both Japanese aliens and Japanese American citizens. (Moreover,) at its February 1942 meeting, the Portland City Council completed the revocation of business licenses to Japanese nationals, and then passed a resolution urging the federal government to proceed with mass internment, and urged the immediate internment of ‘Japanese nationals and persons of Japanese descent irrespective of American citizenship’ for the duration of the war.”
Not very Portlandia, if you ask me. Perhaps the current City Council might someday get around to definitively repealing those WWII resolutions that remain a stain on our local psyche.
So, I say “thank you” to the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee and friends for reminding Portland and America what it means to live up to the words by Emma Lazarus from her triumph The New Colossus inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, words every bit as vital to our nation as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence:
“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”