Lincoln Watched

The order sat on her desk, waiting to be signed into law. This could cost me my second term, she thought. But then, half of the other bills that had passed across her desk had been equally likely to result in a one-term presidency: health care, military funding, tax reform.

Today it was immigration, and this one she wrestled with. The world is a dangerous place. In case the American people hadn’t noticed that, the speaker of the house was explaining it on television, reminding everyone of the possibility of terrorist attacks as though they had forgotten. She didn’t need to watch it to know what he was saying. Besides, that’s what aides were for.

She twirled the smooth wood-barreled pen in her hand, rubbing her fingers across the cool cherry. Her father had hand made that pen and given it to her as a gift when she won her very first election to the state legislature all those years ago. She had replaced the ink many times. It had gone with her everywhere she went, reminding her of where she came from. It had done that job well, and it was doing so again now.

Deny all refugee applications for the next five years, it said. How could both the House and then Senate have passed this? Well, it wasn’t too hard to see, really. People were afraid, and scared people lash out or close ranks. Last year’s bombings had been one-offs, proving the theoretical sleeper-cell spectre was, in fact, a reality. The crashing buildings, mangled people, and dust-covered rescues had been replaying constantly since last June. People were afraid.

The world is a dangerous place. She had grown up hearing this from her own parents, but for them it meant something entirely different. The danger wasn’t coming to into their homes and lives and country. It was already there, shooting their men, raping their women, starving their children until only death remained, until the peril had overwhelmed them and everything became subservient to one purpose: escape. They would have done anything. Anything at all. Something, anything, anywhere, from anyone – death unknown became preferable to death certain.

When she was young, her parents hadn’t talked about the refugee camp they spent nine years in before they finally made it to the United States where she was born; but as she grew older and her parents accumulated some money, they began to return every couple of years to the camp to visit. Aunts, uncles, cousins – all stuck there for years and decades, trailing on.

Their relatives planned camp weddings to other refugees around her family’s visits. Her mother visited her older brother’s grave when they returned. He had been born there and died there. An entire, short life lived in squalor, disease, and uncertainty. He was six. There were no photos, but Maman said he was beautiful.

The world is a dangerous place. It was true, of course. But how could she sign her own name to a document that would damn people, people like her own parents, back to the hell they were trying to flee? How could she not sign something that might protect people, the very people who had taken her family in and given them a life, from having their own lives turned into that same hell?

Both houses of Congress had already passed the bill. It would become law whether she signed or not, and from there the courts would have to decide what to do with it. She could just do nothing.

She dropped her pen on the burnished, Resolute desk and looked around the room. Her room. Her office. Abraham Lincoln eyed her from the far wall, reminding her that human suffering was always worth fighting for even if the cost isn’t just your presidency but your life.

The portrait of the earth rise taken from the Apollo 8 mission spoke to her of world reborn with every new day. What would that world look like? What did she want it to look like? What could she do to move it along toward that vision?

She picked up the snapshot of her parents beside her on the desk, smiling but separated from her behind glass and gilt. She wished, as she often did, that they were here to talk things over with. Six years now had passed since the car accident, but the loss never really went away.

It wasn’t so much the loss of her past, though she did still find herself thinking of things she wished she had asked them. No, it was the loss of the future that still pained her. What would they say about this bill? What would her mother think if she denied safety to desperate people? What would her father say if she denied the protection of safety to those who already had it?

And that was really it. How could she turn away people dying at her door, begging to be let in?

“Send in Gerald,” she buzzed to the secretary in the outer office. She needed her Chief of Staff to arrange a press conference of her own. She was not going to sign this bill. She was going to take a trip, a tour of the three camps worldwide that generate the most refugee applications.

The world is a dangerous place. And in many places, home is infinitely more dangerous than home is here. We have resources. We can protect both ourselves and those who come to us in need, and we will. It needn’t be either/or, nor should it be.

That was her new world – both protection and kindness. Safety with generosity. She looked again at her parents, her earth rise, her Lincoln, and what she saw was herself, the child of two worlds, uniter of peoples. From the corner, Lincoln watched.

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