By Rev. Ryan M. Eller, Executive Director of Define American
This Thursday, our families will sit down to give thanks and count our many blessings. Thanksgiving marks our beginnings as a nation of immigrants, honoring the first harvest feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans in 1621. For the settlers, it was a harsh first winter. And the Wampanoag tribe, who generously shared their knowledge of farming and fishing, welcomed us: America’s first undocumented immigrants.
Throughout history, we haven’t always reciprocated this generosity, as seen by how we’ve treated our native neighbors. That shouldn’t preclude us from giving thanks to them now, and from continuing to be welcomers ourselves.
We have many thanks to give to new immigrants in our country. This includes annual revenues of $776 billion from immigrant-owned businesses and $11.8 billion in state and local tax revenue from undocumented Americans, who have robustly contributed to the growth of our economy.
But even more vital are the values immigrants have embedded and strengthened in our culture, including the importance of family. To immigrants today, like our ancestors who came before them, family is the tie that binds, and these ties reinforce America’s unique ability to embrace diversity in pursuit of our shared beliefs in life, liberty and happiness. That’s what makes rare moments of family unification so powerful, like Sarahi Salamanca’s. It’s also why Thanksgiving is the ideal opportunity to usher newcomers into our own homes–especially those who don’t have loved ones nearby to celebrate with.
Despite our country’s immigrant history, we fail to welcome our neighbors–particularly the over 11 million who are undocumented–with open arms when our nation’s antiquated laws refuse to allow their families to be together. We fail to embrace them as brethren in our communities when we denigrate them as “illegal immigrants.” We deny the generosity our ancestors were shown by turning away refugees who seek safety and freedom to begin new lives in the throes of immense pain and loss. When we advocate for deporting and splitting up families who call this country home or hope to make it their home, we hold in contempt the values the Native Americans espoused when the Pilgrims were new immigrants. This is no way to express gratitude to our native ancestors’ selflessness, nor for the invaluable contributions immigrants have made to our nation.
The fabled tale of the inaugural Thanksgiving is fundamentally a story of the Native Americans welcoming us into what has become a nation of immigrants. It may be partly myth, but it occupies a powerful space in our cultural consciousness–it is because of this initial encounter between the Pilgrims and Native Americans that welcoming and giving thanks have guided the American spirit for centuries. It’s the story we tell each year, and we don’t always tell the stories of Thanksgiving dinners that have taken place since that first meal. These narratives have woven themselves into who we are as a nation, creating the beautiful, diverse patchwork of our country. We haven’t told America’s whole story, and we need to tell it–to both remind ourselves of our complex history and to inform the future nation we want to leave for our children.
At some juncture in our lives, particularly those of us with Pilgrim ancestors, we were once hoping to be welcomed to a new land. Let’s stop our use of language that is harmful and hurtful to American immigrants, including striking words such as “illegal alien” from our cultural lexicon and engaging our communities in publicly supporting and welcoming Syrian refugees. And as we enter a season of giving, let’s extend the hospitality shown to us by inviting those separated from their families to join our holiday meals.
This Thanksgiving, as we sit down to dinner with our immigrant families, let’s consider all the things we’re thankful for, and among them, the many blessings the newcomers of our day bring to our table.