With pleading, exhausted eyes, she looked up and saw my son.
Danny was reaching down to her, reaching down to take the bundle she was holding close to her chest. Carefully, she removed the thin blanket and lifted her infant child up into my son’s strong, gentle grasp.
Danny carefully cradled her baby in his arms. With tear-filled eyes, they exchanged the small, human bundle, but something more was exchanged. The depths of her despair and desperation were also passed on to my son.
Danny now understood. Although they were strangers, as she wept, Danny also wept. In that moment, his thoughts about immigration changed forever.
Except for the small percentage of Native Americans who live here, we are all immigrants. At some point, over the past 400 years, all of our ancestors have immigrated from some far-away land to their new home here in North America. Our country has not always been gracious and inviting to immigrants. Many people were forced here as slaves, prisoners or indentured servants. Some arrived to find hostility and segregation. Our policies are still in transition.
My ancestors came to North America from Antrim County, in what is now Northern Ireland. Like many immigrants they came seeking freedom. Around 1690, the ruling British enacted the Penal Laws in Ireland. These laws prohibited Irish Catholics from freely practicing their religion. They were also not allowed to go to school or enter a profession. They couldn’t vote, hold office, own land or own a weapon. Many Irish families fled the British persecution of the Irish that was made legal under the Penal Laws.
Over 300 years ago, someone named Riley, one of my early ancestors, boarded an old sailing vessel and came to America in search of the freedom and liberty promised by this new land. Like many immigrants, they were met in the port of Baltimore with apprehension, distrust and some anger. They were not welcome in their new country.
It didn’t take my Riley ancestors long to decide to move west. They settled in the hills of Russell County, Virginia. They became frontiersmen — living, hunting and farming the eastern slopes of the Smoky Mountains. After their perilous journey across the Atlantic and the cruel welcome they received in Baltimore, they finally found their freedom among the streams, valleys and wilderness of western Virginia.
Years later, they would move further west and eventually settle in eastern Kentucky. Some still live there. Over the years, they transitioned from being Irish immigrants to being settlers and citizens in their new country.
Immediately after graduating from Wilmington High School, Danny joined the United States Coast Guard. Following his basic training at Cape May, New Jersey, Danny became a deckhand on the Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk. The Mohawk, a 270-foot ship, was stationed in Key West. When she wasn’t in port, she would be at sea where she was used for drug interdiction, law enforcement and sea rescue. The ship’s motto still is: Lifesaver – Enforcer – Defender.
Shortly after Danny was assigned to the Mohawk, the ship was tasked with patrolling the waters between Haiti and Cuba. Thousands of Haitians were risking their lives to escape the military coup that had ousted their elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Hundreds of Haitians were being executed by members of the military coup.
Poverty and desperation thrived in Haiti. Death stalked every street.
In a letter written nearly 25-years ago, Danny told me that most members of the Mohawk crew did not want to go-fishing-for-Haitians in the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. Privately, they scoffed about the boat-people they would be finding on inner-tube rafts and 55-gallon drums lashed together to form makeshift boats.
It wasn’t until Danny climbed down the cargo nets they had secured to the side of their ship; it wasn’t until he had reached out to help people onto the Mohawk that he realized the absolute desperation that filled these people. It wasn’t until he looked into the eyes of that young mother that he could feel the fear and desperation that had driven her to escape. Death at sea, for her and her child, had become preferable to life in Haiti.
As the young men of the Mohawk pulled survivors out of the water, the experience changed them forever. They realized how precious the gift of freedom, liberty and safety is in the United States. It is a gift we often take for granted.
Our freedom and liberty were guaranteed to us by the founding fathers of this country. Yet, our freedom and liberty have been re-secured and re-won over the years by the brave veterans of this country who sacrificed so much to preserve our way of life. We are the envy of the world. That is why so many people struggle so hard to come to this country.
Of course, we need border security. Of course, people need to legally apply for admission into our country, but we must not be hard-hearted about those who struggle for the freedoms we have.
Remember what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “… First: love the Lord God with all your passion and energy. Second: Love others as well as you love yourself. There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”
We must always treat one another as if we are truly brothers and sisters, and we must always treat a stranger’s infant as if it was our own child.
Nearly 25 years ago, on those rolling seas, that infant found her way into my son’s arms and into his heart.
Danny was changed forever.
Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.