NEWCASTLE — Congress has failed to provide the nation with a just and humane immigration system. Such a system would keep the Dreamers from deportation, avoid breaking up families, offer reasonable access to citizenship and respect the dignity of all people.

What keeps Congress from effective action? Nativism, racism and scapegoating are certainly to blame. So, too, is a failure of nerve. As a nation we hesitate to do anything big, bold and profoundly moral to enrich our common life and embrace new arrivals from other countries.

Our public policy has become disconnected from a noble vision.

Underlying our failure of nerve is what rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman identifies as imaginative gridlock. He recognizes three symptoms of imaginative deadlock: a focus on trying harder, a refusal to reframe questions and an insistence on false dichotomies. Friedman proposes instead a quest that allows for risk taking, serendipity that frees us from our usual thought processes and the decision to overcome barriers to the imagination.

Recently I visited the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh. This grand structure is not an ecclesiastical building. Instead, it bears eloquent witness to national ideals including America as a mosaic built from many cultures and the need to offer young adults a hopeful vision for the future.

Early in the last century, the University of Pittsburgh addressed its need for more classrooms in a way both practical and inspiring. In 1924, 17,000 adults and 97,000 children made donations to help raise a great Gothic Revival tower. Local industries donated steel, elevators, plumbing and heating materials, glass and cement. Visible for many miles, the tower still defines university education as an aspiration to great heights.

Ethnic communities in Pittsburgh led efforts to establish classrooms expressive of their respective national heritages. Some 30 Nationality Rooms have been built; others are in the planning stage. Decorated with cultural treasures, these spaces accommodate many regular class sessions every semester.

The community that established the Cathedral of Learning embraced a vision that honors our country as well as numerous groups of immigrants drawn by the promise of America. This community also recognized the capacity of higher education to enrich the lives of persons, cities and nations. A grand and practical building that for almost a century has served the cause of education and borne witness to America’s rich ethnic diversity stands today as a tribute to their big-hearted beliefs.

Our nation’s current need for a proper immigration policy cannot be realized solely through administration and politics. There must be inspiration as well: a sense of the sacred value of people and their communities, the hope that our future can be better than our past.

America has never been a perfect nation. But we can always be a people whose vision is more sublime than money, power and arrogance. Inspired by the Cathedral of Learning and the tradition it represents, America can extend an honest welcome to all who want to join our audacious experiment in seeking the public good.

Another element of that tradition from many decades ago is the social and economic transformation known as the New Deal. Franklin Roosevelt, Frances Perkins and the other New Dealers saw their country reduced to desperation. Yet they believed that America’s best days still lay ahead, that our society could grow far more gracious, and so they dared to try approaches that came without guarantees.

One such approach was the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, signed into law 80 years ago this summer. This legislation provided for an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, overtime pay and restrictions on child labor. These provisions suggest economic rights to complement the political rights in our Constitution.

We can overcome our current national loss of nerve, reactivate our society’s moral compass and continue the task of constructing a more gracious society, one worthy of all Americans, whether they are natives or immigrants.

In the biblical Book of Genesis, the patriarch Isaac digs again the wells of water that dated to his father’s time but had been stopped up by opponents. Some of our wells have been stopped up also, such as those that produced the Cathedral of Learning and the New Deal. Our task is to dig these wells again and make their waters available for the public good.


Comments are not available on this story.