Thanksgiving: A Celebration of Immigration

By Attorney Eric R. Welsh

Thanksgiving is a day for family, feasting, and gratitude.  We express gratitude for good health, for surviving adversity, and for the blessings that surround us even as life presents many challenges.  The holiday is also an excellent opportunity to express our gratitude for immigrants seeking a better life, and for good hosts who grant refuge.

America is proud of its immigrant heritage, even if we don’t always reflect that pride in our treatment of immigrants today.  The Pilgrims and Puritans that sailed from England and other parts of Europe to the land that would become America were refugees, seeking to start a new life in a new land, free from religious persecution and hard times.  They held an annual festival to express their thanks for a good harvest, and for the freedoms and opportunities afforded to them by their new home.  We celebrate the difficult journey that they made to get to America, and the sacrifices that they made when they left their native lands.  Without them, we would not be America.

Thanksgiving is an opportunity to show our gratitude for every person who has sought bravely to find a better life for themselves and their families, from the early people who trekked across the Bering land bridge during the last ice age to those intrepid Pilgrims that landed at Plymouth Rock, to the immigrants that continue to strengthen and enrich our country with new ideas and perspectives.  We say that America is a “nation of immigrants,” and this is certainly true, but all civilization owes a debt of gratitude to immigrants.  Civilization would not have developed and evolved as quickly as it has if not for the movement of people across geographic boundaries.  When people immigrate, they bring diverse sets of knowledge and backgrounds that spark innovation in all disciplines, from science, engineering, and medicine, to the arts, literature, and law.  Simply put, humanity as we know it would not exist but for immigrants.

America—more so than many countries steeped in hundreds of years of ancestry that predate the Enlightenment and the concept of national sovereignty—was founded on ideas moreso than land.  The place that we call America has changed many times: the geographical boundaries of what now constitutes the contiguous United States has changed at least 10 times since America declared independence from Great Britain, and we’ve added some archipelagoes and the land mass known as Alaska along the way.  The land that makes up the United States has always been less important than the idea of America.

We give thanks that our Founding Fathers understood the importance of the idea of America, and designed a nation that would welcome diversity and adapt to shifting cultures and demographics throughout time.   We are thankful that the idea of America has proved so attractive over its history that so many great thinkers, entrepreneurs, and nonconformists born elsewhere have sought to be a part of this Great Experiment.  We will remain attractive in the 21st century only if we reaffirm our commitment to be a nation united by grand ideas rather than a country fixed by (and fixated on) borders.

We give thanks that the Pilgrims who landed ashore were welcomed by the native population, and were not turned away to face the demons that forced them to leave their homes.  We celebrate the breaking of bread between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans, remembering that whatever our personal histories may be, we can find common ground and peace with our fellow man.  America has not always lived up to this ideal of interpersonal understanding and peace (the abhorrent treatment of Native Americans is one example), but on Thanksgiving, we can put aside our differences and remember that we can be great only when we are good.

Thanksgiving should be filled with love and harmony, and as we consider our many blessings, we should count among them the basic human right to seek a better life and travel to a new land.  This Thanksgiving, thank an immigrant for making the brave decision to leave home and start a new life in America.  Without them, we would not be the country that we are, or the country that we can be.