The historical accounts of the first Thanksgiving are many, and they come from a host of different perspectives. It was primarily a religious holiday, say some reports. No, it was a feast to celebrate harvest times, say others. Whether the settlers to the “New World” were starving or prospering also seems to prompt a debate.
But what is generally accepted is that in 1621 in Plymouth, Mass., the first Thanksgiving was celebrated. History also notes that the settlers to the region were to a significant degree saved by the Native Americans, the Indians, who helped them through their first rough months in what became the United States.
Does this Thanksgiving, then, have any special messages for a country now torn by debate over the issue of immigration? It does, though some might dismiss such messages as bleeding-heart liberalism.
All Americans today, those born here with citizenship who are not direct descendants of those who were on this soil originally – from the Indians of that New World to those on North Carolina’s coast to those in what’s now the American West – are immigrants. They trace their families to Scotland, to Wales, to Russia, to China, to Pakistan and all points east, west, north and south. Their ancestors came to this country for religious freedom, to escape tyranny, to find a way out of poverty.
They came to the boroughs of New York City and to the plains of Kansas and to the Pacific Coast and to all points in between. They may not have been refugees in the technical sense, but they were most definitely immigrants.
Today, immigrants with the same goals as the first settlers and those who followed them, through Ellis Island, are too often scorned “illegal aliens” by politicians and shunned by others as some kind of drag on society. Others claim they are dangerous, criminals or terrorists in waiting.
And yet so many will today join in Thanksgiving celebrations and mean it. They’ll be grateful for the freedom they found in America. They’ll mark this day with children born to them in this country and be grateful for the opportunities they hope their children will have. Those who are here illegally, many of whom have been here for years and working, will worry about what might happen if they came out of the shadows.
Others, such as Zubair Rushk, a Syrian refugee who is now a citizen and trying to become a doctor, will hope to be reunited with their families some day. Profiled in Saturday’s News & Observer, he waited five years for refugee status and became an American citizen 10 years after fleeing Syria. He worries about the fate of Syrian refugees seeking peace and freedom but wrongly characterized as dangerous.
Though it’s impossible for any system to be foolproof, the vetting process for refugees to enter the United States is rigorous and usually takes more than a year.
This is Thanksgiving, too, for Miriam Martinez Solais, an undocumented restaurant worker from Mexico who now faces prison because she dared to complain she was cheated out of wages in Roxboro. Her status and her phony Social Security number were reported to authorities, she says, out of retaliation by a restaurant owner. That she is here illegally is absolutely true. That she is part of a confused and contradictory and unjust world of exploitation with regard to illegal immigrants also is true.
How far we have come since that first generation of immigrants joined the Indians, the true Native Americans, to celebrate their harvest and good fortune. And yet, in some ways, we have not come far at all and seem in retreat from helping others sit at a table of bounty.
This day, may God and fortune continue to bless the United States with a harvest of plenty and a willingness to share.