Students of Chinese history know that a cultural giant that dominated Asia and termed itself, the Middle Kingdom, closed up its borders to foreigners during the Ming dynasty. The Emperor Wu forbade all trade with the “barbarian” world. The Great Wall was completed to stop invasion from the north; its sheer size makes it the only man-made structure visible from the moon. After the year 1424, seafaring expeditions were forbidden, so China lost its prowess on the seas while European countries rose uncontested.
Japan endured its own isolationist policy under the Tokugawa shogunate from 1633–39 and remained in effect until 1853. It attempted to keep abreast of Western technology by studying medical and other texts in the Dutch language on the small artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, built to confine foreign traders.
The United States had its own sad history of isolationist policies during the 1920s and 1930s as well as the tragic and cruel imprisonment of citizens of Japanese, Italian, and German descent during World War II. [Note: check out The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell.]
What we’re witnessing is a massive global migration of desperate people, fleeing violent conflict and societal upheaval. Why are Americans talking about building walls across our northern and southern borders? What a waste of governmental funds! We’re a nation of immigrants that has benefitted enormously from their contributions in all sectors of society.
Last night, HIAS welcomed its first Syrian refugee family to the Philadelphia area. This family had been waiting for four years to come to the United States. The State Department has enacted additional guidelines for the Syrians, refusing entrance to anyone from the refugee camps, citing concern for militarization there, and with extra security precautions.
We are separated from the Middle East by the Atlantic Ocean, so we are not be in the footpaths of the desperate people. Why not channel our concern about this crisis in helping the refugees and asylum seekers in our midst with: American acculturation, after-school homework help, mentoring the college-bound teens, and/or preparation for naturalization exams. We are privileged to show the new arrivals the American way, the democratic way to religious freedom. We owe this to ourselves and our ancestors, the first immigrants to this country.