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Is the lamp of liberty still burning in America?

Oct 27, 2017

Last night, the main ballroom was filled to capacity at the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit’s Greektown, a place designed partly to attract higher-stakes gamblers.

But no one among the hundreds present was there to do anything except gamble that this nation could still live up to its promise.

Some there had already taken that gamble and won, after being threatened and physically tortured abroad.

They were there for the annual dinner to celebrate Freedom House, an institution like no other, a place founded 34 years ago to help the tortured and oppressed of the world win political asylum in our country. America was founded, after all, by those fleeing torture and oppression, and we’ve always recognized a right to asylum for those with a “well-founded fear of persecution” where they come from.

Millions have come since. But we are living in an age and with a president who is perhaps the least welcoming ever when it comes to refugees.

There was a small, quiet woman at my table last night who introduced herself just as Barb and who neither sought nor attracted any particular notice. That is, until she was called up to the podium.

America was founded, after all, by those fleeing torture and oppression.

“Remember Barack Obama?” she asked softly, as the audience began to applaud.

And then she said two more words that had them ecstatically applauding louder and even rising to their feet.

“Remember America?” she asked.

The speaker knew very well what America was about and how to defend it.

She was Barbara McQuade, the first woman to serve as the federal district attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Among other things, she had successfully prosecuted Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and sent him to prison for decades. She nailed human traffickers and corrupt Detroit school principals and many other bad guys.

But McQuade has done more to fight terrorism, too, than most people. She and her team successfully prosecuted Detroit’s bizarre underwear bomber, and co-chaired a subcommittee on terrorism and national security for the Attorney General.

She grew up in Macomb County, a place not known for welcoming attitudes towards immigrants. But McQuade, one of more than 90 U.S. District Attorneys unceremoniously fired in March, knows that those whom Freedom House shelters are not terrorists but the victims of terror.

Barbara McQuade
Credit US Dept. of Justice

“We are now in some dark days in America,” she told an enraptured audience. “But Freedom House gives me hope that we will once again see through the darkness, and that Lady Liberty will once again lift the lamp behind the golden door,” she said, referring to Emma Lazarus’s famous poem engraved on the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.

There are those who say Barbara McQuade could have had the Democratic nomination for governor had she wanted it. But she told me she had two teenagers in high school, two more in college, and for now is enjoying being a law professor at the University of Michigan.

After her remarks, a Burundi couple spoke who had won asylum, and are starting Baobab Fare, an East African restaurant.

“Some said I came here to steal a job. I came here to create jobs,” Hamissi Mamba told the diners. Earlier, Deborah Drennan, Freedom House’s executive director, said of her community that simply, “we are the best of America.”

I’d bet no one in that ballroom would disagree.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.